MJ Hyland – This is How

I HAVE female friends who say they cannot finish MJ Hyland’s novels because she cuts so close to the bone. We recognise the blind spots and casual cruelties of her families, 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 own sons down to size. That we have 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 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 16-year-old girl who writes dazzling letters and seeks the meanings of words. Lou Connor is an Australian exchange student who goes to live with a picture-book perfect American family so unlike her own foul-mouthed mob in a housing commission flat in Sydney that she has to make herself up with lies. For Lou, parents and family are slippery concepts that she can’t quite comprehend.

The 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 15-year-old old son masturbates against her in the dark, the 13-year-old daughter dobs her in for smoking and drinking gin and the awful mother, Margaret, annihilates her with her no-nonsense nakedness and the kind of open-heartedness that is no such thing.

Only Henry, the almost albino 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 16-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 Prize, and attracted great praise and more comparisons _ with JD Salinger and William Faulkner and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time. This time Hyland takes us inside the head of pubescent 11-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 Guinness 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 the human lie detector, to apportion blame, or understand what is really going on or take comfort in familiar therapeutic constructs. John’s family and his school are worried by his growth spurts and early puberty and try to get him to talk about what is happening “down below”. John can’t, of course, but nor can anyone else. This is 1960s 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 arms. 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.

Rereading all three novels in chronological order, there is a progression and a trajectory _ a steady moving beyond storytelling to what I can only call a state of deep listening, like love. Only Alice Munro does something similar to 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, heartbreaking _ 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,” he says, 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 his father, “whose nipples show through his white work shirt”, who 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 is able to start planning a new life. The toolkit, with its ballpein hammer, its adjustable spanner, socket set, pliers and all the rest, lovingly assembled over five years, is pivotal, embodying both 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 his lodgings 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 ballpien 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 f..king stupid bitch, two f..king stupid bitch, three f..king stupid bitch, four f..king 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 he does 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 ago to buy a mechanics magazine. Everything makes him think of something he can never have again. His parents fail him again as he knew they would but he can’t help reaching out to them. And now he wants his life more than he had ever wanted it. “I want another go.”

This is How has a narrative structure as plain as a keystone arch. Patrick will start his next go at life among men more damaged than he is, with the same yearnings for touch and warmth and shared breath.

A psychologist bends the rules 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 Hyland a place among today’s very best writers of fiction in English.

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