Hilary McPhee

Reviews, Commentary, and Books


My euphoria after the people’s uprising in Tunisia and Cairo and the stirrings in Syria lasted for weeks.

Then, during the long run up while the UN was deliberating over the no-fly zone for Libya, I was visiting the fiord country in a remote part of PNG where the villages are accessible only by boat and few people have access to radio transmitters. But mad bad Gaddafi was a name that resonated.

PNG has a long tradition of zealots bearing news of change from other worlds. So when I found myself being asked questions about the Arab world,  drawing a map in the dust to show where north Africa is, and holding forth about how Cairo had been inspired by Tunisia and how Libya was in an uproar, I was tentative. But the questions I was asked went to the heart of the matter. Why did the rulers not share the oil money? Why did the people not tell the rulers what they needed? Why did the rulers shoot their own people?

Joseph, the teacher and his pupils from Onotaoba Village, PNG

Port Moresby is more expensive than Sydney. With the building of the PNG Liquified Natural Gas pipeline from the Southern Highlands, have come the condominiums and marinas and five star hotels. The displaced peoples from the villages have long formed semi-permanent enclaves of poverty and bitterness. Schooling is erratic and expensive.  Corruption is rife. Somare, these days  a benevolent despot, with family waiting in the wings – or so the rumours have it. Familiar stuff.

In 2007 the Jamaican mobile phone company, Digicel arrived in PNG, as Orascom had in Egypt and Zio in Kuwait – prepared to enter markets of poor people by keeping prices down. A handset costs 40 kina ($15) and a SIM card provides 8 kina ($3) worth of credit. On the hillsides above the fiords near Tufi the Digicel towers are waiting – not yet connected because of an unresolved argument about land ownership – but they will be soon and the kids are already playing games on their cheap phones wherever they can find a generator.

A fiord, North-East Province, PNG

There are few roads through this mountainous country and only 17% of the population has electricity. Families struggle to pay school fees from Grade 3 and most children from the more remote villages drop out after Grade 6. But now the teachers we spoke to are exploring distance learning and how to encourage small initiatives that might pay something – services for skin-divers and eco-tourists and people like me and my friend in our old hats and sturdy sandals having a break from our privileged lives.

I came back to the hideous news of the murder of the  Israeli-Arab actor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, the region’s most  prominent director and political activist. He was gunned down in the West Bank town of Jenin where he ran the remarkable and radical Freedom Theatre which drew Jewish and Arab audiences.

To Juliano and Vittorio with love – Al Jazeera – Opinion

Jenin’s Theatrical Oasis – Artsworld – Al Jazeera

Then I read Mira-Adler Gillies’ post on the ABC’s Drum  Is Zionism Still Worth Fighting for? and felt better despite the entirely predictable hostility and misreadings she copped in dozens of comments. The next generation are thinking outside the straightjackets of  ideology. On all sides.

Is Zionism still worth fighting for? – Mira Adler Gillies

Have a look at this Youtube clip of Beirut Duty free Airport rocking to the Dabke Dance.


Great days

Hosni Mubarak looking strangely like Silvio Berlusconi (who also doesn’t get it) has handed over power. Once the middle classes – especially when thousands of doctors and the elderly – joined the young, it was probably all over. But earlier that evening it had looked like a dangerous stalemate. I made the mistake of watching the remarkable Peter Watkins film made in 2000 of the 1871 Paris Commune and the role of the media  – and went to bed listening to all night radio full of dread of a mighty massacre. Then it was all over.

Western leaders seem to be welcoming the change in tones both avuncular and hesitant. An Egypt directing its own affairs, influencing the rest of the Arab League to do the same, is a whole new world. The Western media, especially those whose journalists weren’t in Cairo or Alexandria, has largely erupted into worried negativity, evidence of just how far the caricatures and fear of Islam has penetrated since 9/11.

The Muslim world is not all the same.Turkey is not Saudi Arabia.Yemen is not the Lebanon. Indonesia’s transition to democracy was peaceful. Eqypt is more secular, more educated, more cosmopolitan than we often recognise. It is also much younger and  poorer than we can comprehend. Many of the institutions needed for the next stages already exist but aren’t the same as ours. The task is enormous. We might even learn a thing or two.

Youth lash out

It seems to me there are a few hopeful signs – Egypt especially – and here  a generation of young Australians who can’t wait to get out there, lining up to study international relations and cross-cultural complexities, volunteering, learning second and third languages, galvanised by the thought that they are going to have to sort the place out.

This is the same generation of students I met in the West Bank a year ago, who said they were impatient with the ideologies of their parents and grandparents, kids with their text bookbooks on their iPhones so they could study when held up at checkpoints. In Egypt, 30% of the population is under 20.  And recently the Gazan Youth’s Manifesto for change went around the world:

“F*** Hamas. F*** Israel. F*** Fatah. F*** UN. F*** UNWRA. F*** USA!” the manifesto begins, with the verb spelled out fully. “We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference.”

Gaza’s youth lash out at the institutions maintaining the seeming status quo on the hopelessness in Gaza:

Is peace “too much to ask” in 2011? – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

Lesley Hazleton: On reading the Koran

Lesley Hazleton sat down one day to read the Koran. And what she found — as a non-Muslim, a self-identified “tourist” in the Islamic holy book — wasn’t what she expected. With serious scholarship and warm humor, Hazleton shares the grace, flexibility and mystery she found, in this myth-debunking talk from TEDxRainier. A brilliant introduction to the Koran and what it does not say. It’s just nine minutes of your time.

National Biography Award Talk & Podcast

National Biography Award Talk   –    2010

30 November 2010, Mitchell Library

Podcasts available:

Hilary McPhee, writer and former publisher, presents the 2010 National Biography Award lecture.

In recent years she has been living in Jordan and Italy writing a book and articles about the region. Here she discusses biography in both Australia and the Middle East.

Click to view the video

There was a time when some of us feared that literary biography and autobiography were endangered species, that they were being drowned out by the memoirs of 26 year old sportspersons whose lives, or so they seemed to me, had barely begun, but whose books sold in astonishingly large quantities. Publishers were convinced they were on to something and they were.  Celebrity publishing was born.

In the mid nineties, this National Biography Award was created, with the admirable intention of encouraging the highest standards of writing in a genre that was rapidly expanding. And looking at the list of past winners and the shortlists of the last few of years, one cannot but be struck by the range and the originality of the works that have been published since then.

Ideas for books don’t arise because an award exists, of course, and publishers don’t make publishing decisions in the hope of them – but awards like this are a crucial form of acknowledgement to everyone involved that there is some kind of best practice, a standard for research and writing that all the other myriad forms of life writing, the bio-pics and documentary making and collaborating across art forms, can learn from and utilize.

We in Australia seem addicted to them, but they are starting to pour forth everywhere in all kinds of media. President Obama has just appointed someone called a videographer to document life in the White House and his rather fine autobiographies will surely feed that process.

Jill Rowe’s splendid and wonderfully comprehensive biography of Stella Miles Franklin, on this years’ shortlist, is a reminder, if we need one, of the power of awards to map and eventually shape the culture – as I believe this one is already doing.

In an academic climate where writing time is at a premium, the message that historical and literary research work is significant can get very muted. Conveying to authors that such research is worth persevering with – often over many years, is worth doing.

The awards in recent years have celebrated a number of highly original works that have taken the form in directions it has never before been taken. I think especially of Evelyn Juers’ A House of Exile , Barry Hill’s Broken Song, Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Jacob Rosenberg’s ­East of Time, and this year’s winner, of course, Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark, A Life.

Australian writing from life has come a long way. Back in the days when I was a baby editor, books like these would never have happened.

I find it useful to remember the rather low base we’ve come from in this country.

In fact, we encouraged the writing of very few memoirs or autobiographies or substantial biographies until the 1980s. The odd diplomat and headmaster, politicians without spin doctors to plead their case, reminiscences of bush life, mainly by women, most very gentle, if not genteel, and Miles Franklin and Allan Marshall apart, none cut very deep into the culture.

We imported a lot of mainly British biographies and memoirs and published a few rather stodgy, conventionally written works in hardcovers for the library market – of iconic figures – explorers, heroes, aviators.

Those subjects who were still alive were published somewhat dutifully, or so it seemed to me. The old and the distinguished, almost all men, liked to set the chronology of their public lives and thoughts and deeds firmly within the history of their times – their voices were reserved, their revelations for public scrutiny suitably seemly. This befitted the hero’s journey into the dark. The books were perhaps a form of eulogy, epitaph and last judgment rolled into one. Maybe because they imagined themselves dead, they wanted no one to speak ill of them.

By the eighties, some publishers were trying to commission and suggest, but it wasn’t easy. The sorts of people that might have a book in them were the least inclined to write one. You were expected to do them the courtesy of waiting until they thought of it themselves, or risk the huffy response I’m far too young, I’m not finished yet.

So you waited, and usually something watery and disappointing was delivered too late.

I recall family members sometimes bringing in exercise books filled with the grandparents copperplate handwriting giving glimpses of extraordinary childhoods ‘up bush’, or in homes for wayward girls. There were packets of love-letters from young men who went to war, but almost inevitably most were fragments of memories that were fading fast. Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life was a spectacular exception, of course, and fortunate indeed to have found its way to a publishing house prepared to give it the skilled editing it needed.

Tonight, because I am in the Friends Room of the splendid Mitchell Library, talking to people who can be assumed to be interested in biographical writing, it seemed like a fine opportunity to talk a little about some of my time away from here when I was writing a complex biography.

Talking about the book at all is hemmed around by stop signs and no-go areas – most of them in my head, some of them the normal restraints of confidentiality and privacy, some of them might sound a little paranoid to you, like an episode from Spooks, but I was in a world of security concerns, where emails are vetted regularly, at least for keywords, where computer files sometimes seemed to come and go – and formal communications are always coded and oblique.

A few years ago, I was solicited for the task of writing a biography of a well known public figure in Amman – a man greatly respected all over the Arab world and in Europe. He is not at all well known in Australia, which is a pity because we could do with his insights, but it does make talking about the project slightly easier. I don’t need to name him but will try to ensure he gets a copy of this paper. He doesn’t ‘do’ emails, his staff do. And it’s a world of multiple agendas. (more…)

Timid Minds

CAL / Meanjin Essay

‘Cringe’, wrote A.A. Phillips, is ‘a disease of the Australian mind’. This was an unpleasant enough notion in the Australia of the 1950s, then a remnant colonial monoculture with no separate language to hide behind. Now with our cosmopolitan aspirations and liberal assumptions, it seems unthinkable.

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips, critic and schoolmaster, had been commissioned by Clem Christesen to write ‘The Cultural Cringe’ for Meanjin in 1950. Clem did not much like the essay when it came in but ran it anyway, and eventually conceded that the reader response had been gratifying. Alliteration always helps and the phrase soon entered the language though some, like the member of the Commonwealth Literary Fund when asked to support publication of The Australian Tradition, a collection of A.A. Phillips’ essays, wanted ‘The Cultural Cringe’ dropped. Australian culture, he argued, needed bolstering not admonishing. [1]

But A.A.Phillips was no reprimander. His assessment was affectionate but very much to the point. Menzies’ Australia was an insecure, often sycophantic nation, its cultural baggage a complex mix of adulation and hostility. Intellectuals headed to Oxford or Cambridge almost as a matter of course. The centrifugal pull of the great British metropolis was irresistible and the anticipation of rejection must have guaranteed it. A.A.Phillips’ recognition of the tendency to tag along dutifully behind England instead of doing our own thing may have been a bit too close to the bone and the psychological insight uncomfortable. He knew what Australian intellectuals were up against, not only within the institutions of the day but also inside their own heads, and he named the crippling lack of self esteem which yearned for Australia’s meaty individualism to be appreciated. But by the early 1950s there were signs of real change. Returned soldiers and artists and writers among the refugees and ‘New Australians’ were making intellectual life here more complex. Debates in the pubs and at the university seem to have been increasingly about our place in our region and the distinctive shape of Australian culture. [2]

Arthur ‘Angell’ Phillips did not fit the mould. He was an Australian Jew whose bookish family had been here since the 1820s, after a short time spent in London’s Whitechapel. His father had been a president of the Australian Natives’ Association, his mother wrote pieces for the weekly papers and a novel. Except for a pre-war stint at Oxford, Arthur spent very little time in Britain and did not enjoy it much. His tastes were European, his reading wide and his eye on an emerging Australian culture perceptive and acerbic. His critical writings about the Bulletin School of the 1890s as the beginnings of an Australian tradition meant that he was typecast, somewhat reluctantly, for the rest of his life as one of Australian literature’s foremost advocates and interpreters through his regular reviews and critical essays. But first and foremost he was a schoolmaster and for over forty-five years at Wesley College generations of schoolboys were taught to comprehend that ‘finely responsive reading is primarily an act of surrender, and only secondarily an act of judgment’.

Australian poetry and fiction were always part of his curriculum, and the anthologies he produced with Ian Maxwell, from as early as 1932, meant that some Australian writing was included in the syllabus of the English Department at Melbourne University. The Australian Tradition, published by Cheshire in 1958, was an attempt to counter-balance The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis, which had already defined the ground for the canon, and English Departments around the world had fallen into line.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Nomad

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s convert-like zeal is both disturbing and delusional, writes Hilary McPhee…

Nomad: A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations By Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fourth Estate, $35.00

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has brains and beauty and is a gift to those of us who like our prejudices confirmed. In Australia, where she returns regularly to promote her books, she reinforces our idea of the Muslim world as monolithic, mediaeval and dangerous. Islam is all bad, religion is the problem, Allah is the villain. The West is better in every respect. These days she proclaims the American way with stars in her eyes.

Hirsi Ali’s early life was difficult and spent on the move between Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Had she grown up elsewhere – in parts of the Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Teheran perhaps – she might have been able to give us a more complex and sympathetic picture of the Muslim world, but I suspect not. As each of us is shaped by family and culture, it was her dysfunctional family that formed her, and gave her the courage and impetus to escape – a harsh mother she despised, an educated politicized father she idealized until ‘he fell back into a trance of submission to Allah’, a younger sister she had hopes for but who married and retreated from the life being offered in Europe.

Hirsi Ali’s story is extraordinary and her books, mixtures of memoir and analysis wearing their dramatic single-word titles like brand names, are highly popular throughout the West. A Muslim apostate is both consolation and vindication in uncertain times.

Infidel told the story of her family and her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, how she learnt the ropes of the welfare system and the workforce, before gaining a university education. How she became a member of the Dutch Parliament, worked with immigrant women, scripted the film Submission, of Koranic verses projected onto a naked woman’s body, a provocation for which the producer, Theo van Gogh, was murdered and she received death threats. From then on she was provided bodyguards by the Dutch Government until a political furore over her citizenship status caused her to leave Holland for the States. In 2006 she accepted a job with the ultra-conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which had provided much of the rationale for military intervention in Iraq and for rebuilding the image of Israel in the world through a conservative alliance with America. Nomad is dedicated to the Past President, Chris DeMuth, ‘my surrogate abeh’ (father). Hirsi Ali describes this time as her intellectual coming-of-age. With her now private bodyguards, she travels the US and those parts of the world that welcome her message, lecturing on the evils of Islam and explaining her remedies, scornful of more than a billion and a half Muslims. After Allah, Muslim women receive most of the blame – childlike, unable to manage money, trapped in their marriages, pouring their frustration into damaging their daughters.

We are never reminded that more than 50 countries from Indonesia to Iran through Africa and the Middle East have Muslim majorities and vastly different cultures and histories. A perspective on the role played by poverty, illiteracy and rural conservatism is missing. Pre-Islamic cultures don’t rate a mention.

The books aren’t much good. Infidel, ghostwritten in Dutch and published in English translation in 2007, came at the right time and sold hugely. Nomad is a rather awkward retelling of her story through the lens of imagined contact, mainly by telephone, with her sister and her dying father, her hated mother and her dead grandmother. Framed by a chapter called A Letter to My Grandmother and an epilogue called A Letter to My Unborn Daughter, are large chunks of rather out-of-date polemic echoing Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington. The old ‘clash of civilizations’ gets a rerun.

Her targets are predictable. Multiculturalism is dismissed as utopian, producing victims and welfare dependence. Feminists are naive for suggesting that many women in the West are also manipulated, complicit, objectified. Germaine Greer cops it for cultural relativism; Tariq Ramadan for being Tariq Ramadan.

There’s a depressing absence of hope or empathy. Micro-financing which has for years been targeting women and helping them out of poverty doesn’t rate a mention; nor does the improved literacy figures in some Islamic countries; nor the belated but massive investment in education in some rich Arab countries. The growing numbers of modern Muslim women in public life and scholars reinterpreting the Koran and Shar’ia, described recently by Isobel Coleman in Paradise Beneath Her Feet, do not fit her thesis and are ignored.

Hirsi Ali has now joined the ranks of celebrity atheists. Richard Dawkins calls her a major hero of our times; Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens speak of her beauty and tiny wrists. The latter is in a state of adoration: ‘For me the three most beautiful words in the emerging language of secular resistance to tyranny are Ayaan Hirsi Ali’. I wonder what they make of one of the ‘remedies’ in Nomad that Muslims would be better off being Christian and that the Vatican joins the campaign to save Muslims from themselves.

There is something disturbing and slightly delusional here, the zeal of the convert protecting herself from facing the consequences of her own actions and theories, perhaps. The cult that surrounds Hirsi Ali could engulf her. She’s a one-woman band against her own culture, a hero to herself as well to the men who worship her. I can’t help but fear for her.

Yann Martel – Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil By Yann Martel, Text Publishing, $32.95

In a small room as white and brightly lit as an operating theatre, an antlered creature stands at bay, a beautiful commodity, a thing. Encrusted with large balls of acrylic and tiny crystal beads, it sparkles like a prize from a rich person’s treasure trove, a vision of the future. Not until you stand close and peer deep into the acrylic lenses at the magnified whorls of delicate brown and gingery hair does the taxidermied elk beneath reveal itself.

This statement about manmade annihilation, by Japanese sculptor, Kohei Nawa, in Brisbane’s APT6 , is all the more powerful, it seems to me, because we have to do the work ourselves. He does with optics and silence what Yan Martel’s new novel seeks to do with words. Beatrice and Virgil, with its multiple vantage points, is a novel as much about the struggle to find the right words as it is about their meanings, words for the desperately difficult task, beset by taboos, which Martel embarks on knowing full well the risks.

Beatrice and Virgil has two central animal characters who died a long time ago and two human characters both called Henry. One is a failed author who dazzled the world with his last novel which, like Yann Martel’s extraordinary Life of Pi, sold trillions of copies, won the Booker and was translated into many languages.

This was, in retrospect anyway, no surprise. What could be more exotic and reassuring than the terrifying predicament of a Pondicherry zookeeper’s 16 yearold son bobbing in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat held safe by his love of God (Pi is a Hindu convert to both Christianity and Islam) and his empathy with animals. In the boat with him is a 450 pound Royal Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, and for a while, until they are eaten, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg and a female orangutan.

With Faith and Science on board, the reader is secure, lulled by a seductive storyteller and fabulist. Yann Martel has a boundless imagination and an astonishing way with words, taking the novel where it has never been before. Life of Pi became beloved of book groups and ordinary readers everywhere.

But he must be a publisher’s nightmare, this Yann Martel, this author who made them bucket loads of money the first time round in 2001 and, for a young author, has taken rather a long time to complete this second book. In the meantime he has been a thorn in the side of Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, sending him every fortnight since March 2007 a book he should read. This admirable cultural activism has never been acknowledged by Harper – although President Obama, after reading a Life of Pi recently with his daughter, wrote him a perfect note – ‘a lovely book – an elegant proof of God, and the power of story-telling.’ Beatrice and Virgil is not a lovely book, nor does it have the simple trajectory of story-telling we crave from best-selling authors. Martel’s imagination is as rich as ever, but this is a bleak cold intellectual world, riddled with symbolism and anecdotes about deliberate and considered killing by human hand. The author’s quandaries, normally concealed from the reader, are revealed – the blockage in the brain, the knot which must be unravelled word by painful word.

Martel starts with the most commonplace of writerly predicaments – an idea which fails to take flight and will not until it is assumes a life of its own. Henry’s long-awaited next book was to be about the Holocaust, packaged as a ‘flip book’ bound so the reader could start at either end and read through to the middle then start over again, reversing the order or not at will, through lies to truth, through imagination to reason, through fact to fiction. Henry loved this friendly format, believing it to be inspired, certain it would shatter the taboo of making Holocaust fiction.

Instead his publishers invite him to a posh lunch where his editors, his agent, and an expert historian are gathered to reject the conceit of the flip book – a marketing nightmare, commercial suicide. The taboo is only tangentially addressed as each asks the crushing question, What is your book about? – which Henry, of course, cannot answer.

So, after five years work, with an unpublishable book and a failed idea on his hands, Henry abandons writing and decides to concentrate on life. He keeps busy doing pleasant things. He and his wife move house and have two children. He takes up music again, joins a respected amateur theatre group, acquires shares in a chocolateria, adopts a kitten and a puppy. He lives as if his days on this earth are numbered. But sometimes in the middle of the night he opens the file of his precious book and aches for the old creative joy through which the truth can be uncovered. Writing is understanding, a way to discover what he thinks.

One day a large envelope from an unknown source assumed to be a fan of the best seller arrives at the theatre. Inside is a little known story by Gustave Flaubert, ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, about the routine killing of wild animals on a grand scale, plus a fragment of a play, clearly a work-in-progress, in which two characters named Beatrice and Virgil are tenderly discussing pears. Virgil knows what a pear looks like, how it tastes and smells, but Beatrice does not. In the envelope too is a note from someone also called Henry asking for help at an address in a dingy part of town unfamiliar to Henry, the stuck author.

This turns out to be Oktapi Taxidermy, a complete, one-stop taxidermy store, with tigers and reptiles, stuffed birds, colonies of tortoises and fish, and all the paraphernalia of the taxidermist’s craft, the sinks, the knives, the smells, the rolled up hides and piles of tusks, the horns, the skulls. Oktapi Taxidermy proclaims itself as employing ‘professional natural history preparators, masters in all the techniques and materials needed to build any habitat setting you might desire in which to display your mounted animal.’

The book’s two non-human characters in the taxidermy store are Virgil, a red howler monkey sitting lightly on the back of a donkey named Beatrice. As if listening intently to Virgil, Beatrice’s head is partly turned with one ear swiveled towards him – presumably the better to hear a description of the beauty of pears.

Henry the taxidermist, a grim remote figure, wants help with words. For a stalled writer infinitely curious about the world he has entered, this is a simple enough task. He eagerly sets about exploring the right adjectives to describe Virgil’s lustrous chestnut fur and long tail as dextrous as a hand. Much more problematic is how to describe the horrifying howl of the monkey recorded forty years before in the upper reaches of the Amazon jungle. At home Henry plays the old tape over and over, filling his head and his house with the distressing howling roar which barely hints at reality, ‘but ultimately there is only the thing itself, in its raw purity. Hearing is believing.’

Eventually it is revealed that the taxidermist is writing a play in two acts. ‘A 20th century Shirt’ is a dark allegory of a European country, written on the shape of a striped shirt which reminds Henry of the Holocaust. Everything reminds Henry of the Holocaust, his wife says furiously. But the taxidermist, when asked what his play is about, responds fiercely ‘It’s about them, the animals that are two-thirds dead, two thirds of all animals have been exterminated, wiped out forever.’

The taxidermist, a craftsman who renders dead animals suitable for the collections of ordinary people to embellish their lives, merely wanted ‘to see if something could be said once the irreplaceable had been done. That is why I became a taxidermist,’ he says, ‘to bear witness.’ Henry’s loathing of his alter ego grows. He understands why all the animals in the showroom are so still; it was dread in the presence of the taxidermist. The Flaubert short story, he now understands, offers redemption without remorse.

In the end all that remains is a bloodied and crumpled piece of paper which provides the clue for his first piece of fiction writing in years. Games for Gustav poses thirteen impossible questions, each as unthinkable as the last. ‘Your daughter is clearly dead. If you step on her head, you can reach higher, where the air is better. Do you step on your daughter’s head?’ The novel sometimes staggers under its weight of symbolism, showing all the signs of a writer’s struggle to bring into focus the compulsion to kill and the capacity to feel nothing – the abomination which Beatrice and Virgil call the Horrors, plural.

It’s structure is bizarre and exhausting, but probably the only one which would serve for Martel. He quotes large chunks of Flaubert, provides fragments of the taxidermist’s play, Henry’s attempts at definition. Gustave’s dreadful ‘novel’ at the end has its origins in the vast archive of the Warsaw Ghetto from 1940 to its elimination in 1943 after the Ghetto Uprising – Martel uses lens upon lens, the focus changing all the time.

There is no consolation. God is missing. Science is there only in the service of taxidermy. Beatrice and Virgil have been dead for thirty years. Genocide and species extermination require human agency. We invented them, and the deeper we face them the more inextricable our complicity becomes. And so we find ourselves precipitated into the land-mined territory of moral equivalence by a novel which will infuriate those who see anti-Semitism and obscenity in any attempt to unpack certain words and meanings, any attempt to confront and dismantle the taboo. Words are a central part of the problem, creating a shadow world, relentless, chilling, banal, fearful, a chronicle of human failure – a writer’s failure – a failure, which in the end, is inevitable and may be irreparable.

Beatrice and Virgil is a weird brave looping book which does not pull punches. I can’t stop thinking about it. It is remains to be seen if it too has what it takes to become the darling of book groups around the world. If it does, then Martel’s achievement will be even more remarkable than before – a sure sign that he has tapped into the depth of desire out there to grapple with the unspeakable horrors of our times.

Glimpses of Heaven and Hell in Dubai

The 8th Wonder of the World had already been proclaimed well before the grand opening in Dubai of Atlantis – The Palm in November 2008. The thirteen acres of artificial palm-shaped archipelago jutting out into the shallow waters of the Arabian Gulf featured a 42 acre water park of 65,000 fish, the soon-to-be controversial Dolphin Education Centre, the whole thing anchored by the vast pink luxury hotel, its 1539 rooms full for the occasion with the world’s celebrities and tycoons. This was to be an Event like nothing on earth and the $20 million fireworks display would be clearly seen from outer space.

But the timing and scale of the opening of Atlantis –The Palm could not have been worse. International derision was guaranteed. ‘Dubai’s Last Hurrah,’ trumpeted the cover of Newsweek. The Guardian cited Ozymandius: ‘The dunes will reclaim the soaring folly of Dubai.’ And the Independent kept putting the boots in: ‘The Shangri-la of the Middle East bites the dust … a city built on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery.’

The news that Dubai, like everywhere else in the over-developed world, was feeling the force of the global recession was endlessly repeated. The real estate bonanza had indeed slowed, some of Dubai’s more spectacular projects were on hold, their indentured labour redeployed or returned to Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the tall tales about the end of the world rapidly assumed the shape of a manga: three thousand luxury cars abandoned at the airport, keys in the ignition, their owners fleeing to avoid jail, once-rich wives deserted, selling their bling and sleeping in the dunes in their SUVs, empty apartment buildings as far as the eyes could see, every second business retrenching staff and dishonouring contracts, not a crane moving on the horizon. And, through the cracks in the edifice, the desert sands had started to creep across the highways …

Emiratis and the professional expatriate community fought back as best they could on blogs and in interviews to Arab media which was more inclined to listen. Dubai will not be allowed to fail, said Tariq Yusef of the World Bank on Al Jazeera. Dubai, he said, has become a model of accelerated growth for others in the region; its belief in itself as a grand hub of trade routes and ideas is an ancient one which the Arab world celebrates and intends to make happen again. A failure of Dubai would be a failure of the whole United Arab Emirates.

Eventually the British Government weighed in and distanced itself from the mockers. The British have long links with the region. The seven sheikhdoms or Emirates which form the United Arab Emirates had been a British Protectorate from 1820 to1971. The UAE is one of Britain’s top ten export markets with 1783 British companies operating in Dubai. The Brits, including the egregious Beckhams, have been the most enthusiastic purchasers, after the Russian mafia, so the stories go, of expensive and hyped real estate off the plans. Investors reaped huge returns in the good times buying and selling when rents were leaping by up to 40 percent a year, but the credit crunch caught the over-extended, major developments slowed, vacancies rose and rents began to fall. The place is now a renter’s paradise, says Dubai’s National, the impressively staffed and resourced Guardian look-alike English language newspaper – the world’s newest print journal and surely its last.

The discovery of oil in the mid sixties transformed the small Bedouin fishing and pearling ports along the strip of land on the southern shore of the then Persian, now Arabian Gulf. Today the Emirates are essentially seven cities of varying sizes and strategic roles, with unimaginable amounts of money to invest in fast tracking modernity.

Abu Dhabi, the conservative capital within commuting distance of Dubai, dominates the Federation with most of the UAE’s land and oil wealth. Abu Dhabi aims to be the cultural centre, investing heavily to develop institutions and cultural projects such as the prestigious and extraordinary Saadiyat Island where Frank Gehry will deliver his biggest Guggenheim yet and for which the Louvre has accepted one billion dollars to share its exhibitions and its name. But it is Dubai, with limited oil and natural gas reserves accounting for less than six percent of its revenues, which has embodied the narrative of globalisation, ahistorical, diverse, unsentimental, its economic goals transcending all others. Here the constraints of culture and nationalisms have melted into air and a ‘world class’ megalopolis has emerged where Spider-Man would be at home.

By mirroring and exploiting the West’s own excesses of consumption and greed, catering to every whim and fantasy of the newly rich, Dubai made itself a perfect target, rapidly becoming one of the world’s greatest carbon foot-printers. The green golf courses and lush parks and private gardens reaching down to the sea require more water per capita than anywhere else on the planet. But much of the criticism is rather like accusing the Arabs for doing at top speed with maximum hubris and minimum regulatory impediments what developers have been doing in the West for decades – knocking down, building up, producing skylines that look the same everywhere, creating cities that further deplete the world’s finite resources, which isolate people whose chief value seems to lie in their capacity to consume.

Dubai is crass but it is not alone. Britain’s developments on the Costa del Sol are neither pretty nor environmentally sensitive, nor is the Australian Gold Coast, nor the proliferation of gated communities on Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera nor Florida. The new Westfield Mall in London’s Shepherd’s Bush, ‘the largest urban shopping centre in Europe’ which opened this year on the site of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition halls, is a glass-roofed, climate-controlled cathedral to consumption and luxury, glittering with chandeliers, food flown in from around the globe, and featuring the same up-market labels as the malls of the United Arab Emirates. Without the flack.

For those who hadn’t been watching, the first sign of the UAE’s regional and global strategy was the launching of the Emirates Airline in 1985. Two years later it was running daily nonstop flights to London and the European capitals enticing shoppers and tourists with cheap fares to make stopovers in Dubai. Twenty years later the Dubai International Airport is a hub for world aviation. Terminal 3, which opened a month before Atlantis-The Palm, is not only the largest building in the world by floor space (1,500,000 square metres), but is located 20 metres below the taxiway area. Terminal 4 is on schedule to open in 2013 and 40 kilometres away in the desert, the Al Maktoum International Airport, the World’s largest, planned to cater for up to 150 million passengers annually and 12 million tons of cargo, is already underway.

The night we arrive at the glittering Terminal 3, there are no queues and the duty free shops selling alcohol are empty but the arrival hall is so enormous the crowds may well have been somewhere else. A smooth immigration official in a dishdash and keffir admires my Italian spectacles and waves us through. The English language newspapers on the plane have carried an extensive interview with the Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, reassuring the world in the bland language used by Prime Ministers everywhere, that all is well, that the Emirate is on track, that the downturn is global and Dubai is exceedingly well placed to emerge stronger than ever.

The news of the injection a few months earlier of $10 billion in bonds from the UAE’s Central Bank, was interpreted by most Western pundits as oil-rich Abu Dhabi propping up hapless Dubai by buying into its economy. This was firmly denied by His Highness and President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi citing the conditions of Islamic banking, which preclude one party profiting to the exclusion of the other, and the region’s grand plan. Obviously Dubai had been playing by other rules, profiting from the lifestyles of expatriates and tourists from all over the world, and thriving on speculation and the same kind of debt trading instruments that brought the Western banking system to its knees (1). By the end of 2008, Dubai’s foreign debt stood at 148% of GDP while monthly retail interest on a Platinum Visa Card issued by the National Bank of Dubai was 2.99 percent, both well into the realm of haram for sharia-compliant Muslim institutions. Now, it seems likely that the combined financial strategy with Abu Dhabi may be emerging with a different mix including a range of state-funded sharia-compliant development projects.

‘Rest assured that between Abu Dhabi and Dubai there is no buying and selling,’ said Sheikh Khalifa. ‘Everything in Dubai belongs to Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE, and all that is in Abu Dhabi belongs to Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE.’

Architects and urban planners from around the world started pouring into the region over a decade ago. There were the stars – Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Fernando Donis of OMA , Atkins, Zara Hadid are a few of them – their teams usually young and drawn from all over the world. They were encouraged to develop concepts on a scale and complexity only China building for the Olympics could match – and were attracted, in all likelihood, by the prospect of seeing projects fast-tracked, unencumbered by the bureaucracy and layers of government most have to deal with back home. The Ruler of Dubai is often described as a one man band. Certainly his executive team is small and hands-on. This is a kind of e-government, accelerated decision-making with minimal regulation which provides at least the impression of easy access to power.

Critical debate about the future shape of Dubai and the problems caused by its accelerated growth is far from discouraged, the planners and architects I spoke to told me, and there’s been a good deal of it in recent years but in a speculative climate of rapid returns, hard-hitting advice from consultants and advisors may have been been somewhat compromised by the power structures. Sustainability is one of the UAE’s greatest concerns but it sometimes sounds more like a buzzword than an imperative.

The Dubai Urban Development framework commissioned in 2007 has still not been released. This is expected to resolve a number of issues, including the structure of the development entities, and to systematically confront the massive environmental concerns facing cities built on sand at sea level, although the Dutch are already helping with dyke technology. The largest and most fantastical of the recent real estate developments have been put on hold, the manmade Islands of the World and the Universe, and the second and third great Palms, constructions that would add another 150 artificial kilometres to the coastline. But professionals described slowdowns rather than outright cancellations – projects on the backburner while the current downturn lasts.

Several layers of infrastructure are still missing, they say, because Dubai has grown so fast without a coherent urban vision. A secondary road system barely exists and great superhighways swirl through the city, segregating the older, poorer areas of small businesses and cheap restaurants, and limiting the life they could give to the city. Walking is almost impossible. A consortium of Japanese and Turkish contractors is building the ultimate Atkins Sistra designed metro with air-conditioned pods for stations which will include prayer rooms, shops and cafės, but car journeys will still be required to access most of it. Expat mothers will still have to ferry their children to school in huge SUVs and the poor will still be piled onto grim buses and trucked to building sites.

But in the New Zealand-owned Lime Tree Café near the beach in Jumeirah where young expatriates from all over the world hang out at the weekends, where the espresso is great and the food like home, the talk is about the Idea of Dubai, and the opportunity it now has to slow its breakneck pace and fill in the gaps – in institution building, in regulation, in content development. And, at night on the Dubai Creek where the sparkling urban skyline frames the life on the water: dhows, wooden trading boats, carrying small cargo from Iran, India, Yemen and North Africa as they’ve been doing since the 1830s when the Maktoum tribe established a free port, and the abras, cheap water taxis, ferrying people back home, and the smell of the shwarmas cooking on stalls on the banks – and you have a sense of what talented people here get excited about, the unique opportunity they have to mix with all races, cultures and religions in an increasingly tolerant cosmopolitan Arab city that is inventing itself.

In July 2002, the rich Arab world’s complacency was shattered when the UN released its first Arab Human Development Report. Written in Arabic by Egyptian statistician Nader Ferany, it described two decades of failed planning and developmental decline and drew humiliating comparisons with the developing world. The report’s main thrust was that poverty and deprivation was about empowerment and literacy at least as much as income, and that the region was way behind global standards of economic, scientific, social and political development. Three hundred and fifty foreign books are translated into Arabic each throughout the Arab world with its population of 330 million – a paltry one fifth of the number of titles translated in Greece, population 11 million. A clear measure, surely, of lack of openness to the rest of the world. Israel was the only country in the region to be on a par with other developed nations. China was doing better on most counts.

The report also showed how threadbare was the much trumpeted tradition of Arab generosity, the oil rich nations having utterly failed to bring on the hinterland and the peoples of its own region. Millions of Arabs are among the world’s poorest, still dependent on foreign aid, in countries where literacy levels and schools are often atrocious and libraries rare.

Since then there have been changes, hopeful signs of a new pattern slowly emerging, serious state-of the-art planning and investment in educational infrastructure at all levels. Philanthropy and volunteerism is being encouraged at last especially among over-privileged and under-occupied rich young people, with Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar leading the way (2). Sharia–compliant micro-financing and the mandatory charitable giving through zakat are unlikely to solve the structural defects that keep the rural poor trapped in their fate so that any substantial alignment of Islam with social justice is surely a long way off – but money is starting to be invested in people as well as real estate.

The Maktoum Foundation’s mission statement is ‘Our region’s success depends on creating an environment conducive to knowledge and providing tomorrow’s leaders with the motivation to build a better future.’ A year ago Sheikh Mohammud, through the foundation announced the establishment of a 10 billion dollar fund for education throughout the Middle East – by all reports, the world’s largest humanitarian investment from a single source. Literacy is the target.

‘Reading is an essential tool towards building knowledgeable and innovative societies,’ said Sheikh Mohammud announcing a programme to encourage reading and to donate books to under-privileged Arab countries. These would include, he said, ‘international literary classics presented in a simplified and attractive manner … to widen the horizon of children and educate them in virtues such as cooperation, tolerance, honesty, integrity, among other typical values of our Arab culture.’ Writing books for children would also be stimulated by a programme of grants for writers across the Arab world encouraging them ‘to contribute to the noble goals and explore this important literary genre’. This is a start and a huge one.

Shopping too is worth another look. The giant malls are centres, refuges from the heat which can rise over 50 degrees, places where people work out early in the morning, where community groups meet and people come for all kinds of entertainment. Each February the DSF Dubai Festival of Shopping draws people from all over the Arab and European world. The slopes of Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates and the Ice Rink in the recently opened Dubai Mall are thronged day and night. So are the gigantic bookshops and themed malls created as sites for education and culture where Emirati school parties can be seen taking notes. Here are meticulous and elaborate recreations of the journeys of the great 13th century traveller, Ibn Battuta, and displays proclaiming the achievements of the Arab countries he passed through – which cannot be dismissed simply because they lack the authority of Western museum culture.

Dubai employs the rhetoric of innovation and creativity constantly, but there is not a lot of beauty yet, or not until you get out into the desert – or so it seemed to me. The light on the rubble from demolitions and road works is harsh, the vast swathes of green anachronistic despite their branding as oases. The city feels like a collection of individual, often spectacular, statements. There are some graceful buildings, others gimmicky and pretentious, and more so dull their designers must blush for the missed opportunity. Dubai’s narrow economic goals have so far defined it.

But the gaps are starting to be filled in – making those connections to the wider world of art and ideas, essential for a truly sustainable modern Arab city. There is an annual film festival, and earlier this year the first internationally marketed contemporary art fair drew artists from around the region and dealers from the West, despite the downturn, contemporary Middle Eastern art having been declared the next big thing. Its curator chose to focus on small venues in Dubai’s tiny historic quarter of old stone houses, and in an industrial area near the airport some political and hard-hitting new work especially from Iraq and Palestine was on display. Not only was Australia playing Pakistan in 20/20 cricket in the enormous new Dubai stadium while I was there but WOMAD was in Abu Dhabi for three days of non-stop free concerts, with singers and bands such as Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Khaled, the Algerian Rai star, Coldplay, the British rockband, Etran Finatawa from Niger, West Africa and Dhafer Youssef from Tunisia. Both events attracted huge crowds.

Umm Suqeim on the Beach Road, where we are staying with friends, reminds me of Melbourne’s affluent low-lying bayside suburbs in high summer: the light and the silence, the occasional palm tree, the sand and the sea at the end of the street, the city skyline in the distance.

Just before sunset I walk to the public beach through the empty streets. Except for two men polishing a black SUV limo, there is no sign of life from the Emirati compounds behind their huge gates and high walls. But at this time of the evening the public beach is crowded. Family groups with picnics, workers from the neighbourhood, a few maids from the Philippines sitting together, the men playing cards or chess or strolling along past tourists in all stages of undress, Australians in tee-shirts identifying themselves. At last count there were about 15,000 of us living and working in Dubai and dealing with jokes about the lack of surf.

There seem to be few expatriate mothers and school-age children on the beach. Later I am told that early evening is peak hour for mothers who must arrange their day around school programs which start at 7.30 am and are often not finished until after 5. Driving on Dubai’s roads to schools in outer areas can take several hours a day. There is little part time work and their website carries pleas for car pools and playgroups in Fun City. There are fitness programs on women-only days in the parks, and heartfelt advice on how to survive.

On the fine white sand brought in from somewhere else, I sit and watch the young families, grandmothers setting out food, grandfathers smoking nagillas with other grandfathers, the women in black abayas, the men in jeans and tee shirts. A very young baby is being tossed up and down and dangled in the sea by its proud father. The mother, her abaya tucked up, paddles beside him taking photographs.

In the distance there are yachts silhouetted against the rather beautiful billowing shape of the Burj al Arab hotel, and a lone swimmer out beyond the net meant to prevent people being carried away by the currents. The water is warm and waveless and everyone watches as the huge red sun falls into the Arabian Sea.

When I walk back through the dark streets, the local majlis is glowing with neon. The majlis, the place of assembly, where men congregate to exchange views is still a feature of men’s lives in parts of the UAE. Traditionally, anyone from the street could come and sit in the majlis and they would be welcomed, however down at heel, and take part equally in the debates of the day. Through the open door I can see men in white dishdashes lying on divans smoking their nagillas and holding forth.

Our friends’ house is one of eight around a pool with a common garden in a compound rented to foreign nationals, most with young children. It is spacious and cool with marble floors and rugs, filled with books and family treasures from Egypt and Europe. I can hear the music before I open the door.

The boys, just home from school and still in their English-style uniforms, are practising their performance for their father’s birthday party this evening. Adam in a green and yellow Australian Cricket Club cap is playing blues on his saxophone with great feeling. Jo, his young brother, in a Rugby League cap, accompanies him on the piano and makes jokes. They both move effortlessly, sometimes in mid sentence, as do their parents, between Arabic, German and English. Nadia, the youngest, in her swimming costume, head-phones on, is at the kitchen bench making an elaborate birthday card.

The gathering this night includes friends from journalism, finance, education and the law. Some are neighbours from the compound which is shared by families from Mexico, the US, France, Russia, Germany, Malaysia and Iran. At least four languages are spoken at the table and I struggle as always. Most have been in Dubai or other parts of the region for some time and clearly regard themselves as part of the place.

The talk at first is about the downturn. Everyone knows someone who has left or might have to, and there is concern but the consensus here too is that Dubai will emerge stronger, with better institutions, and some long overdue clarification of legal systems. At present there are federal laws, local laws and sharia – and much confusion. The current Guidebook for New Residents gives lengthy practical advice on ‘what to do if you are nicked’. And someone points out that one of the new universities has started offering a degree in Luxury – whatever that might mean.

The Koran was playing in the cab and the driver didn’t look at me or answer when I first gave him directions. Not realising he was praying, I repeated the name of the mall I’d been told to visit. How long had he been in Dubai, I asked. Six years. He is permitted to go home to see his wife and three children in Islamabad every year. He manages to do so every second year. He lives in a room with a cousin and two Pakistani friends so that he can send his family most of his meagre pay. Life is very hard, he said cheerfully, but heaven is waiting, God is good, I am a good man and my children are very clever, my wife is a good woman. My life is very very hard but God is good. I am happy that I am a good man and that I will go to heaven.

Without the consolations of religion life must be hell. 67percent of Dubai’s foreign-born residents are from India and Pakistan. 300,000 of them live in labour camps between the great arcs of the freeways and hidden from sight. Only if you take a wrong turning as we did, and manage to get through a couple of checkpoints, can you see the camps. Our friend tells the armed guards she is lost. They go through the motions of leaning into the car but we are not turned back.

We drive through endless rows of metal huts with washing strung up between them. Some have old air conditioning units, most have satellite dishes and benches out the front. Here live most of the indentured labourers who build and maintain Dubai, men who leave home on the promise of better wages and on payment of an upfront fee to an agent who takes their passports, sends them to labour in the UAE while their health and strength lasts. Once they have paid back their fares, they send home what they can to their impoverished families. Their life expectancy is less than 45 years.

After the damaging report last year of Human Rights Watch, widespread bad publicity in the western media, and some protests of immigrant workers themselves, the men were allowed to form a union. But nothing much has changed. Living conditions have improved a little, overflowing sewerage is ‘being rectified’, and working in the hottest part of the day in summer when temperatures go above fifty degrees is no longer enforceable. But too much hinges on their compliance in their fate. Sending money back home is essential.

A large proportion of the GDPs of many of the poorer countries in the region, including Egypt, depend on these remittances from the Gulf, and governments, more often than not, are complicit in maintaining the status quo while trying to secure larger quotas for their workers. This is a world that works because for the poor there is no other way. It works because it is taken for granted by those who benefit most by it. It works because the hierarchies and inequities are ruthlessly maintained.

All imported labour in the UAE is regulated by labour laws that favour the employer. People can leave their jobs or cancel contracts only if the employer agrees. Domestic servants are utterly dependent on the goodwill and kindness of their employer. Some treat their maids abominably. Others help them, pay hospital bills, teach their children to share the pool with the maid’s kid. Most have left their families behind and send them money and gifts but some husbands and children manage to arrive, living for a time in tiny maids rooms, perhaps regarding themselves, as did the early immigrants to Australia and North America, also fleeing poverty and persecution, as having an opportunity for a new life for their children. Some may even be allowed to paddle in the sea.

Dubai, built on the twin pillars of high living and consumption, is a bellweather for much more than the global recession. The Muslim world is drawing on its own legacies and traditions and substantial moral underpinnings in its race for modernity – playing by its own rules as well as the rules of the globalised West and therein lies its fascination. Worth looking at, it seems to me, and worth remembering that many things get lost in translation.

A young Emirati blogger wrote recently: ‘Our export isn’t oil, it’s hope. Poor Egyptians or Libyans or Iranians or Pakistanis grow up saying ‘I want to go to Dubai… We are showing how to be a modern Muslim state, not an Islamist one.’

The region is on to something.

Deep Listening – three novels by M. J. Hyland

MJ Hyland This is How, Text Publishing (2009) How the Light Gets In (2003), Carry me Down (2006)

I have women friends who say they cannot finish MJ Hyland because she cuts so close to the bone. The blind spots and casual cruelties of her families we can recognize, the unwitting neglect that only shows up when the damage is done. Our anxiety is that we have failed to hear the coded cry for help, have stood by and watched husbands, sons of damaged fathers, cut their sons down to size, that we’ve mothered too much or not enough.

In Hyland’s world where unconditional love is a dream of bliss and other kinds of love cannot be counted on, the consolations, such as they are, seem infinitesimal – but they are there. There are acts of kindness, understanding, even intervention – from a school teacher who applauds a child’s imagination, or an elderly staff officer who wants everyone to have a second chance, or a friend who writes that she believes in you – but other people can’t mend what is broken, they die, or go away into their own lives.

In her remarkably assured and critically acclaimed first novel, How the Light Gets in (2003), the narrator is a clever sixteen year old girl who writes dazzling letters and seeks the meanings of words. Lou Connor is an Australian exchange student given into the charge of a picture-book perfect American family so unlike her own foul-mouthed mob in the housing commission flat in Sydney that she has to make herself up with lies. For Lou ‘parents’ and ‘family’ are slippery concepts which she can’t get a grip on.

Her host family is well-meaning, determined to love Lou for the year she is with them unaware that she intends never to go home and to find herself a place where she ‘could be treated with the same kind of unreserved love dished out by intelligent and warm parents to a beautiful first child’. Instead she finds herself in a household stuffed with righteousness and dented morals, where the fifteen year old son masturbates against her in the dark, the thirteen year old daughter dobs her for smoking and drinking gin, and the awful host mother, Margaret, annihilates the girl with her no nonsense nakedness and the kind of open-heartedness which is no such thing.

Only Henry, the almost albino host father, has an inkling of Lou’s complexity and ‘sheer humanity’ – but can’t or won’t intervene to save her when her drinking and occasional drug-taking land her in bleak ’secure accommodation’ run by US Immigration. Here Lou has her one experience of the kind of love she craves with Lishny, another clever sixteen year old, who is about to be taken into police custody for child murder. At what they know will be their only time together, the two sit on the floor eating chocolate cake and talking about books then shut their eyes and fantasise about a big bed in an uncle’s mansion where they will fall asleep, wake up holding each other, as though they have done this for a very long time.

Carry Me Down appeared three years later, was shortlisted for the Booker, and attracted great praise and more comparisons – with Salinger and Faulkner and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time. This time Hyland takes us inside the head of pubescent eleven year old John Egan, a gangly young giant whose only way of containing his anxieties as he blunders against his parent’s disintegrating marriage is to believe himself to be a human lie detector bound for the pages of the Guiness Book of Records.

The one moment of real equanimity in the novel happens on the first page. John is sitting with his parents at the kitchen table. It is a dark Sunday in winter. ‘The pantry is full. From time to time we stop reading and talk. It is a good mood, as though we are one person reading one book – not three people apart and alone. These kinds of days are the perfect ones.’

But that day ends with the first lie. His father, to see what the boy is made of, bashes his half-drowned kittens against the edge of the bath, while his son watches and vomits. His father denies he feels anything but John knows he is lying.

The flattened prose carries all the horror and sadness of an emotionally inept family but we are no more able than John, the human lie detector, to apportion blame, or understand what is really going, or take comfort in familiar therapeutic constructs. The family and his school are worried by the boy’s growth spurts and early puberty and try to get him to talk about what is happening to him ‘down below’. John can’t, of course, but nor can anyone else. This is sixties working-class Ireland, with gangs on the prowl and the poor in overcrowded high rise flats. Catholicism doesn’t help. The schoolmaster who punishes a bully by holding her face in a fire-bucket until she wets her pants is one of the few people perceptive enough to know something of John’s suffering.

Contemporary stereotypes of abuse are useless. This is a family that reads books and makes jokes and cuddles and strokes each other’s hair. John loves his mother and watches her all the time. She doesn’t repulse him when he leans across the table to touch her tongue. ‘Your tongue is cold,’ says John. ‘A strange pair,’ says his father watching them.

With the father withdrawing into his own misery and deceit, the boy shares his mother’s bed, trying to protect her from the half truths and obfuscations that are crowding in on them, hating her torn nightdress, her grey and greasy hair, wanting to save her, to hear her breath, to help her to sleep.

‘Come and sit with me,’ she says. ‘I feel shattered. I’m in pieces.’ She lies on her back. I get on the bed and lie next to her. She is quiet and her breathing is soft.’

Hyland is an astonishing writer who has honed her skills through three novels almost to a vanishing point. There is an absence of writerliness and detectable narrative manipulations. No masterly unravelling of traumatic contingencies in the manner of Ian McEwan, no dazzling riffs on the world outside the window, just spare prose in the voices of her damaged souls, inarticulate, needy, often obtuse, sometimes excruciatingly self aware.

Re-reading all three novels in chronological order, there is a progression and a trajectory – a steady moving beyond story-telling to what I can only call a state of deep listening, like love. Only Alice Munro does something similar to MJ Hyland, it seems to me, effortlessly conjuring closed worlds through revelatory detail and perfect pitch, the all-knowing creator never there on the page. Even the titles of her novels, like sky writing, are perfect for the moment of recognition they give you before they dissolve into air.

Her new book, This is how, is pared to the bone, relentless, heart-breaking – an immersion in another human being’s life that feels like a gift.

Patrick Oxtoby, an awkward and mildly dysfunctional young motor mechanic, plagued by ‘social nerves’, lies to protect himself from scrutiny, though people, especially women, like him better when he doesn’t. His girlfriend has ditched him because he can’t express his emotions. ‘The thing is I didn’t have that many’ and he’d believed they were happy. ‘She slept behind me with her hand on my chest, and I thought we would always sleep like this. She said she liked it.’

Patrick leaves his claustrophobic home and the mockery of the father, ‘whose nipples show through his white work shirt’, who always encouraged him one minute and teased him the next. It’s not as if Patrick doesn’t love his mother, not as if she doesn’t love him, her youngest son ‘who came along rather unexpectedly seven years after two miscarriages, but not unwelcome, of course not unwelcome’. But only his grandmother opened her arms to the boy when he discovered the bliss of dismantling and reassembling his bike: ‘Dear Patrick, you have found the thing you love to do’. Two weeks later she drops dead and his rage and the pains in his shoulders begin.

By moving into a room in a seaside boarding house with home-cooked meals and a warm-hearted landlady, and his red toolkit safely stashed under his bed, he plans a new life. The toolkit, with its ball peen hammer, its adjustable spanner, socket set, pliers and all the rest of it, lovingly assembled over five years, is pivotal, embodying his family’s disappointment that their son ‘isn’t using his brains’ and his pride in his considerable skills as a motor mechanic.

But his ease is fragile and evaporates when his mother, in ‘her dress like a bus seat cover, the same ugly thing she wears all year’, arrives at the boarding house to make sure he is all right. He tries to fob her off and get her out of the place but he knows ‘she is thinking her son’s a liar when she’s gone and provoked the lie in the first place’. The pains in his shoulder come back.

‘I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my toolkit and put a 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.’ Patrick is left binge-drinking and working part time at a local garage fixing fancy cars, desperate for a girl. He is tormented by sounds of rutting through the wall and the suspicion that the other lodger with the posh voice and the springy head of hair is moving in on every woman he fancies. His anxiety mounts when the toolkit is left behind in a pub, and when he suspects his room has been entered by his mocking neighbour and his tools plundered.

Patrick doesn’t mean to do what happens next and understands it only as a mistake. There is no remorse except for himself and his ruined life. ‘My mind played hardly any part, but my body acted and as far as the law is concerned, my body might as well be all that I am.’ He returns to his home town through streets that he walked down two weeks before to buy a mechanics magazine. Everything makes him think of something he can never have again. His horrified parents fail him as he knew they would but he can’t help reaching out to them. All he knows is that he wants his life now more than he had ever wanted it. ‘I want another go.’

This is how has a narrative structure as plain as a keystone arch. Taken from a room full of light and the smell of the sea, Patrick will start his next go at life among men even more damaged than he is, with the same yearnings for touch and warmth and shared breath.

A psychologist bends the rules at his last review and lets him hold her ‘really warm and really very close, and the mood of it being wrapped around her, it’s a mood and a feeling so great I want to bawl.’ He is drawn to a man who loves his ficus plant, measuring its growth and watering it tenderly. ‘It’s probably not love but I care what happens to it. You’ve got to care for something.’

Patrick will find his life shrinking to a size that suits him better and even in this dark place there will be moments of almost joy and almost love.

This is How secures MJ Hyland’s place amongst the very best writers of fiction in the English language today.