Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, literary fiction, MJ Hyland, Publisher, Setting

‘This is How’ by MJ Hyland


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 320 pages; 2010.

MJ Hyland has become one of my favourite writers in recent years. I discovered her in 2006, when her second novel, Carry Me Down, was short-listed for that year’s Man Booker Prize. That story, about a young Irish boy plagued by a certain kind of madness, was deeply unsettling.

I then hunted down her debut novel, How The Light Gets In, and was enthralled by yet another tale about a troubled youngster, this time an Australian teenage girl, going off the rails.

I decided I liked Hyland’s dark, edgy subject matter, her ability to capture the “truth” of what it is like to be an outsider, and her elegant, economic prose style. But none of that really prepared me for the sheer power — and strangeness — of her third novel, This Is How.

The book is set some time in the early 1960s (although it’s hard to tell, as no definite date is given, although there are clues, including references to the Triumph TR4, which suggest this is the time period) and the main character, Patrick Oxtoby, is a mechanic starting life afresh in a town on the English coast. The move has been prompted by the break up of his engagement, and it’s clear he hasn’t quite yet got over the shock.

Three weeks ago my fiancée Sarah was standing at the top of the stairs when she said, ‘I can’t marry you, it’s over’, and when she was halfway down, I called out her name, but she didn’t stop, didn’t so much as look at me, just said, ‘Please don’t follow me.’

I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words. But I didn’t, and when she’d closed the front door I said, ‘Okay, then’, and, ‘Goodbye, then.’

Afterwards I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed hard enough to send her flying.

And I got the sentence in my head, over and over, ‘You broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine’. It was something I’d never say, not like anything I’ve ever said. I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much.

I realise that’s a fairly large chunk of text to quote, but it’s helpful, not only to get a feel for Patrick’s cold, abject voice, but because it reveals a lot about his personality: he knows that he has trouble expressing himself (“I didn’t know how to make the words”) and he’s clearly got violent tendencies, even though he swears he’s never harmed anyone.

Only a few more pages into the story, that tendency towards repressed violence is revealed once again. This time he’s upset with his mother, who has tracked him down to the boarding house in which he is residing indefinitely, trying to cajole him into coming home.

I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my toolkit. I put the pillow on the floor and put a towel over it and bash good and hard. And I count: one fucking stupid bitch, two fucking stupid bitch, three fucking stupid bitch, four fucking stupid bitch.

If that doesn’t give you the heebie jeebies, and make you want to read on to find out what makes this man tick, then you’re a harder reader to please than me.

I found Hyland’s portrait of Patrick absolutely fascinating. He clearly wants to succeed in life and love but doesn’t quite know how to go about it (Louise Connor, in How the Light Gets In, shares similar personality traits, but you forgive her because she’s so young and doesn’t really know any better).

Patrick is obviously very clever — he goes to university, but drops out to pursue his dream of becoming a mechanic for which he has a particular talent — but there’s something about him that isn’t quite right. He doesn’t seem to “get” people and fails to relate to them on any real emotional level. And he’s so beset by anxiety it manifests itself in terrible neck and shoulder pain which can only be alleviated by vast amounts of alcohol.

The crux of the novel is an appalling act of violence he commits in the boarding house, for which he later claims to have no memory. The rest of the book concentrates on the outfall, not only on himself but on his family, who want to disown him. And while I don’t really want to say much more for risk of spoiling the plot, the story becomes a treatise on guilt, redemption and rehabilitation. It is chilling and fascinating by turns.

This Is How is far from a cheery read. Despite the loathsome character at its heart, it’s strangely compelling. It’s dark, disturbing and filled with pathos, but it is exactly this kind of exploration of a fragile mind that everyone should read, not because it offers condemnation, but because it does the opposite: illuminates and educates.

I can’t wait to see what MJ Hyland offers up next.

18 thoughts on “‘This is How’ by MJ Hyland”

  1. I love Hyland’s writing too – although I have only read Carry Me Down but this is the first review of her latest book that has made me want to read it. I think I have been put off by the violent subject matter but I so want to get over that so I can read this one!!


  2. I agree and ever since reading How the Light Gets In I greedily devour whatever comes next from this author. She has a unique writing style and gives great insight into the minds of her troubled characters.


  3. I’m not sure whether to claim her as an Australian author… although she has an Aussie accent she is of Irish parentage, was born in London and now lives and works in England… I once read an interview with her where she classed herself as a “citizen of the world” but maybe she was just being diplomatic?


  4. It’s a violent story, but told in a very understated way (which kind of makes it more chilling). But it’s not gratuitous. If you like dark stories with a disturbing theme then it’ll be right up your street.


  5. She’s a must-read author, in my humble opinion, but I realise this story might not be for everyone, because it’s pretty grim. But the characterisation is superb.


  6. I agree. She really gets into the mindset of some pretty interesting and dark characters. I’d been saving this book up for awhile, because I wanted to be in the right mood to appreciate it. And also because I was kind of scared that I wouldn’t like it or that I’d be disappointed by it. But I think this is her best effort to date.


  7. I think you’d like this one, Simon. It’s a terrific read, but you have to be in the right frame of mind for it, I think.
    PS> What’s happening with your Brazil trip? Have you gone yet, or has it been put on hold? Sorry, I can’t access your blog from here. It looks like all wordpress and blogger blogs are banned in China.


  8. I’ve been meaning to read this one since the Orange longlist was announced, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I must move it up my list after reading this review though!


  9. I really love her writing too. I heard her speak last year and she was absolutely delightful.
    This book reminded me of The Outsider in both the main characters and the prose which are both very stark. I felt really quite sorry for Patrick. He was so awkward despite his attempts at being social and fitting in.


  10. In whole-hearted agreement with you on her work. I’ve admired all three. She makes me think of Lionel Shriver and Barbara Gowdy, two other writers whose writing makes me extremely uncomfortable…in the best ways possible!


  11. I’m reading this right now. It’s so powerful and a really tremendous book! I’m really in awe of the devastating voice and language M.J. Hyland imbues throughout this story. So strong and there are multiple passages where I have to pause and dwell upon a particular passage. Very powerful work…


  12. Agreed: this is a truly powerful book. Even though I read it more than 18 months ago, the story has stuck with me. Hyland is one of my favourite writers (I’ve reviewed her two previous novels on this site, too), but this is by far her best work.


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