Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 256 pages; 2006.
Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland is about a year in the troubled life of a boy trying to comprehend a confusing and painful adult world.
John Egan is unusually tall for an 11-year-old and his voice has already broken. He is obsessed by the Guinness Book of Records and has a ‘gift’ for detecting lies.
An only child, he lives with his mother, father and grandmother in a small village in rural Ireland in the early 1970s. But when he moves with his parents to a council estate in Dublin, the notorious seven towers of Ballymun (U2 fans will appreciate this reference), his relatively happy homelife takes a serious downward slide.
When John’s obsession with truth telling goes a step too far, it has drastic — and quite unexpected — consequences for his parent’s relationship and his own sanity.
Carry Me Down is a deeply unsettling and disturbing read. Hyland’s prose is carefully controlled so that the reader is barely aware of John’s slow descent into madness. She conveys that nowhere time between childhood and adulthood with aplomb, and the tight, first-person narrative deftly captures John’s confusion and naivety: a boy who looks and sounds like a man but is still very much a child unable to control the people and circumstances around him.
But as much as I admired this book, especially it’s powerful, oh-my-goodness climax, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d read this type of story before: poor Irish boy growing up in difficult circumstances who doesn’t understand the own violence within him. (Patrick McCabe’s brilliant The Butcher Boy and Roddy Doyle’s Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha come to mind.)
I also found it slightly odd that John’s emerging sexuality is mentioned in only the vaguest of terms. Surely a boy of that age would be troubled by the changes to his body and want some form of reassurance? But when he’s taken to the doctor in an attempt to have someone explain puberty to him he fails to comprehend what they are talking about. But this is just a minor cavil.
On the whole Carry Me Down, which was longlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize, is a confident, understated novel brimming with tension, madness and dark humour.