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.