Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 320 pages; 2004.
A couple of years ago I read MJ Hyland‘s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, Carry Me Down, which I greatly admired. Her ability to get inside the head of a disturbed 11-year-old boy was nothing short of extraordinary.Her debut novel, How the Light Gets In — written two years before Carry Me Down — covers similar territory, but this time the protagonist is a 16-year-old troubled girl. But that’s where the similarities end.
This time the narrator is not from Ireland, but Australia, and the setting is the suburbs of Chicago. Louise Connor is an exchange student from an underprivileged background who has high hopes of reinventing herself as a new person, free from her emotionally distant family — her unemployed parents, two bullying older sisters and their no-hoper boyfriends — where evenings are spent
all in the boxy lounge-room, all smoking; so much smoke you can hardly see, the burning ends of their cigarettes glowing, moving from lap to mouth, somebody waving at the smoke to see the TV screen.
When she moves in with her clean-living morally upstanding host-family, Margaret and Henry Harding, and their two children, 14-year-old Bridget and 15-year-old James, she believes it won’t take long to “unlearn the tricks of my own family”. But despite the love and affection shown to her — Margaret is especially touchy-feely and goes out of her way to make Louise feel at home — it doesn’t take long before Louise starts to crack under the pressure.Used to a life in which she is able to do what she wants when she wants — no curfews, no rules and little, if any, parental guidance — Louise suddenly finds herself suffocated by the Harding’s strict regime and their oh-so perfect American lifestyle. She begins sneaking out of the house to smoke cigarettes.
Later, in desperate need of some Dutch courage so that she can audition for a school musical, she starts drinking gin bought on the sly. She then begins to use the gin to cure her chronic insomnia, a condition that neither Margaret or Henry take seriously despite Louise begging them to let her see a doctor about it.
Without wishing to reveal any plot spoilers, Louise’s dream of a new life on American soil begins to unravel slowly but surely with distressing consequences…
How the Light Gets In is, without a doubt, a fascinating emotional roller-coaster of a read. Louise is a totally believable character: a self-absorbed teenager who knows what she wants but doesn’t understand the appropriate way to go about it. She’s incredibly smart (she has a phenomenally high IQ) and knows how to talk the talk, but fails to walk the walk. Emotionally immature, she has a cold-hearted ability to cut herself off from her family, but has no problem using boys to get what she wants — although, interestingly enough, she is stumped by her host-brother’s romantic interest in her.
Despite her many flaws, I found Louise to be a very likeable character. Some reviewers have compared her to Holden Caufield from The Catcher in the Rye, but I found her more reminiscent of Baby from Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals. In places I was cheering her on; in others I wished I could jump in and protect her from her own naivety and misfortune.
How the Light Gets In is a clear-eyed, completely unsentimental portrayal of a teenager coming off the rails. It’s a moving tale that will stay with me for a long time. I wish I’d read it sooner.