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‘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.

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

‘How the Light Gets In’ by M.J. Hyland


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.

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‘Carry Me Down’ by M.J. Hyland


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 with 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 home life 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.

A slow descent into madness

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 its 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 his 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.

‘Carry Me Down’ by M.J. Hyland, first published in 2006, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a novel about “emotional development”, one that is preoccupied with the “rather grand theme of truth”.