Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book review - MJ Hyland - "This is How"

MJ Hyland is an extremely proficient writer. Of that, there can be no doubt. I first encountered her in "Carry me Down", some years back. And I was entranced by her humanity and her eye for the ordinary.

This book, which has sat on my shelves for quite a while now, is very different. It is extremely stark. It is written in a relentless first person and every detail, every observation, every passing thought, every waking moment of the narrator is bare and shorn and as brutal and factual as anything one can imagine.

This fact makes the book feel rather pedestrian. But that is surely the point she wants to make. That life is usually pedestrian and ordinary. And that we are all just travellers together on the journey of life, from its start to its end. We do the best we can. We make mistakes - and some of these mistakes have disastrous consequences for us. And sometimes we face them and sometimes we try to avoid them. That is just the way that life is.

Patrick Oxtoby is very much a loner. He has the kind of petulance and dismissiveness of many young men, when they leave home and try to find a place for themselves in the world. His home is filled with middle-class dreariness. It is unimaginative, unexplosive and dull. When he leaves, it is not so much as a form of protest, as an obvious need to disengage from them and to make a life of his own.

He finds himself in a boarding-house in an unnamed seaside town with two rather irritating Oxbridge types. He himself, much against his parent's wishes, has chosen a career as a mechanic. He is a very good mechanic and he enjoys the ability he has to fix cars well. But his career could never be thought of as glamorous. So he observes. He engages from the perifery. And the two Oxbridge types irritate him in their lack of decorum and control.

Through a set of ordinary circumstances, he finds himself committing an act of violence - both intended and unintended. And here begins a journey he is forced to take, which is anything but pleasant.

He goes through a trial, with inadequate preparation and in a system which appears entirely incapable of hearing any point but the simplistic one and delivering any judgement but the obvious and the statutory. There is no understanding of human complexity and no willingness to entertain any perspective other than the mundane. That is how the law works, after all.

And it is then that he enters a world of unrelenting darkness. And it is here that Hyland's choice of using the first person for the narrator reveals the depths of desperation and loneliness. I have seldom seen the device used more effectively.

It is not an easy novel to get through. But the journey one is taken on, is not an easy one either. And that - perhaps that bleakness which one is given access to through the novel - is a high artistic achievement.

MJ Hyland "This is How", Canongate, London, 2009

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