MJ Hyland, Carry me down

MJ Hyland, Carry me down bookcover

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

If you like writers who unsettle, then MJ Hyland is a writer for you. Carry me down is my second Hyland. I read, loved and reviewed a later book of hers, This is how, nearly a year ago, and said then that I’d like to read more. I finally have, and am not disappointed.

Carry me down is a pre-coming-of-age story. John Egan is an 11-year-old boy living in Ireland with his parents. He’s an only child and is keen to be special, different. He is clearly pre-adolescent – he’s naive, for example, about some of his 15-year-old cousin’s behaviours. He’s an unreliable narrator: the world he sees and describes is rather skewed but the unsettling thing is that we, the readers, know it is skewed but we are not quite sure in which way. What is going on in this family is the question in our minds from beginning to end.

Like This is how, the novel has a vaguely unsettling beginning. The first paragraph sets up what looks like a cosy family scene. The three are sitting, companionably it seems, around the table on a Sunday evening. The third and fourth paragraphs read:

From time to time we stop reading to 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.

That “alone” is a little jarring, though not dramatically so. But then comes this on page 2:

“John,” she [his mother] says, “please come with me. “She is taking me out to the hallway, away from my father. She is taking me out of his sight, as though I am rubbish.

“Rubbish”? Now, that’s a strong word. What she tells him in the hallway is to stop staring at her:

“You were staring at me, John. You shouldn’t stare like that.”

“Why can’t I look at you?”

“Because you’re eleven now. You’re not a baby anymore.”

There seems to be something slightly strange going on here, or is there? Is this just a pre-adolescent bumping up against the adult world he is about to join, or is something far more complicated going on? As the book progresses, John’s relationship with his mother verges on “too close”. He seems a little too emotionally and physically needy, and she seems unsure of how to manage it. Is his need normal, is the question we ask. Meanwhile, his relationship with his father seems more typically adolescent. He wants his father’s approval and love, but he wants to be independent too. And, he wants to be special. He is an avid reader of the Guinness Book of Records, and decides early in the novel that he has a gift for lie detection for which he’d like to be included in the Guinness. He reads up on lie detection, and starts his own Gol of Seil (Log of Lies).

The situation is complicated by a number of facts which come out in the first chapters of the novel. John is unusually tall for his age and is under medical care for this. He regularly scratches a spot on his head until it bleeds. And he is bullied at school, because he is clearly a little different. His father is out of a job and studying for exams to be admitted to Trinity College. The book his father is reading at the start of the novel is Phrenology and the Criminal Cranium. Is this a hint to us – or a red herring? His mother works with a puppet show. This is interesting, too, as the idea of puppets subtly undercuts the desire for control and independence that John, like any pre-adolescent, is starting to strive for. The family lives with the paternal grandmother, with whom John’s father has a prickly relationship, mainly around money. And, underlying all this is John’s growing obsession with truth and lies.  This obsession is the framing motif in the book. John catches adults lying and takes them to task for it, all the while telling lies himself. He does not, by the end, come to a real understanding of how lying functions, of the difference between white lies and more serious ones. For this reason I don’t see it as a true coming-of-age story.

And now I come to my problem. How do I write about this book without giving it away? There are events – powerful, troubling ones – that occur in the book and that can be “read” in different ways. I’d rather like to analyse or explore the possible meanings, but that would require giving away some significant plot points. I don’t want to do that because this is a book that you need to discover for yourself, sentence by sentence.

What I’ll say though is that this is one of those books that has an open ending. (Indeed, giving nothing away, the last word of the book is “open”). How we read it depends on our own world view, on the weight we give to the various events in the novel, on how we read the specific words and images used by Hyland to describe the events and characters, and our personal understanding of adolescent and family psychology. The way I see it, the book’s ending hints at a number of possibilities but we do not know, at the point in their lives that we leave these characters, which of these possibilities will eventuate. And that, as they say, is life!

MJ Hyland
Carry me down
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007 (orig. 2006)
ISBN: 9781921145780

18 thoughts on “MJ Hyland, Carry me down

    • Ah, roped you in! It was shortlisted for the Man Booker, something I should have said in my review, so is well worth being roped in for I think. I look forward to hearing (reading, that is!) what you think.

    • Well read this or This is how … because I’ve read reviews that say How the lights get in is a little heavy/clumsy by comparison! Meanwhile, I’m keen to read How the light gets in. She really knows how to get into character I think.

  1. I enjoyed This is How greatly, so this one appeals. I well understand how hard it is to write about a book when you can’t divulge the ending – in this case you have given us enough to gauge the style of the book, and for me this one is a “must read”

    • Thanks Tom.

      If you liked This is how, as I did, you’re sure to like this – though I think This is how is just a little tighter albeit I can barely put my finger on it! She’s a great writer and I’ll willingly read more.

  2. Hyland’s one of my favourite authors. I read this one when it was longlisted for the Booker in 2006 and remember finding it deeply disturbing. I think that’s a trademark of Hyland’s work though: she creates more questions than she answers, and, in doing so, she really makes you think and fill in the gaps for yourself. I’m not sure she’s everyone’s cup of tea though.

    Funnily enough, I do remember having reservations about this story, though. Perhaps I had simply read too many tales about poor Irish boys growing up in difficult circumstances for this one to sound fresh and new. Patrick McCabe’s brilliant The Butcher Boy and Roddy Doyle’s Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha come to mind.

    • Yes, you’re right, she does create more questions than she asnwers. I think that’s why I like her – well, her writing is also great of course, but I like the fact that she doesn’t make it easy for her readers. Butcher boy and Paddy Clarke are two books I’ve wanted to read for a while …

      On our first trip to England, we discussed whether we’d also go to Scotland or Ireland. I chose Ireland because of its literature. Most people I think tended to choose Scotland (back than anyhow) but I’ve never regretted my choice to go to Ireland. A fascinating place.

      • I suspect people choose Scotland cos it’s easier… it’s just up the road from London after all. My paternal grandparents were Scottish so I remember being very keen to see the country they left behind when they emigrated to Australia — and I wasn’t disappointed. It will sound strange but I immediately felt at home there.

        But my great love is Ireland. Is there a word for someone who is obsessed with Eire? Maybe an Eire-ophile?

        • You’re probably right. I really should have gone to Wales because my ancestors are English and Welsh (and Danish) but it was Ireland that drew me. I’d love to go back again. Your recent posts have made me envious.

  3. I read this when it was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago, but thinking about it know I can’t remember a single thing about it! Even reading your review brought nothing back, although the Gol of Seil rings a vague bell. It obviously didn’t make much of an impression on me.

    • Isn’t that interesting? I nearly ended my post with the comment that a year later I still remember Patrick Oxtoby (from This is how) and that I expected to add John Egan to my list of unforgettable characters! That said, I have certainly experienced what you say above with other books, even ones I recollect liking at the time. It’s a worry.

  4. I have a literary crush on M.J. Hyland. I loved this book but I’m unsure if I would want to read again any time soon. I’m amazed at how deftly Hyland manages to convey the sense of creepiness and unease with such simplicity. Nothing is explicitly stated but simply reading that John has stared at his mother just a little too long or that he’s a little bit taller than most kids his age gave me the tingles. It’s brilliant how little oddities here and there build up the tension.

  5. Oh Mae, I was just thinking about you yesterday wondering how you were going. Having been away from home for 5 of 6 weeks in May/June I feel completely out of touch with my favourite bloggers! Anyhow, I totally understand your literary crush – and agree with you how subtly she builds up the tension so that when you write a review you think “am I going out on a limb? am I imagining the oddities?

    • Yes, I’ve reverted back to my lurking ways :-). It sounded like you had a fantastic trip. You’ve been travelling quite a bit this year!

      And M.J. Hyland is as lovely in person. I was fortunate enough to meet her and hear her speak about This is How a few years ago. I can’t wait for her next book.

      • Oh lurking’s fine but I do like to know people are OK! How nice to have met her. Was that in Melbourne? My bookgroup is discussing This is how this week. I’m looking forward to it though will have to refresh my memory tomorrow!

  6. I finished this book today and I can’t really understand the ending part . I’m searching for reviews so people could explain the ending bit so I can understand it a little bit more.
    When john decided to return the stationmaster he stole form the house and at the ending part it sais ‘the station masters are together’ is this is a metaphor saying that everything was put back to its place and everything is back to normal like nothing ever happened?
    And what does it mean by ‘the door is open’? It really confuses me.

    • Thanks for commenting syrtt, but I’m sorry I can’t really answer this. It’s nearly 5 years since I read this book and I just can’t remember that detail. I remember getting to the end and thinking there were different ways of reading it. But I think your way of reading it is one way. I’m not sure I’d say “like nothing ever happened” but it could suggest that things are back as they should be. Then again, they are “model” characters not “real” so perhaps they represent the ideal, the wish, not the reality. At the end, his parents are still unsure of him aren’t they BUT I would have to read the book again in detail to recollect the different ideas I had back in 2011.

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