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

M.J. Hyland, This is how

Bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

If you want to read a book that is quick (and seemingly simple) to read and yet satisfyingly complex, then MJ Hyland’s This is how is for you. I’ve been wanting to read Hyland for a while and, having now done so, this won’t be the last.

So where to start? The novel is a first person story told by a young, somewhat disengaged 23-year-old man, Patrick Oxtoby. It is set in the late 1960s, perhaps early 1970s, but the setting and period barely matter really, as this is very much a book about character (and, humanity in general).

Now, my problem is what to say about the plot without spoiling the first third of the novel, so I think I’ll say nothing except what the back cover tells us. It says that “it is a novel about crime; though not a crime novel” and that “it has an almost stately pace and yet it’s thrilling”. These, together with my opening comment that it is simple but complex, should convey what a rather paradoxical read this is. The novel opens with the following:

I put my bags down on the doorstep and knock three times. I don’t bang hard like a copper, but it’s not as though I’m ashamed to be knocking either.

Who is this? Why does he describe his knocking in such terms? Well, we soon learn that Patrick, newly jilted by his fiancée, has come to this little seaside town to start a new job as a mechanic. He’s intelligent – though dropped out of university – and comes with good recommendations as a mechanic from his previous employer. But he is a very singular person, one who is not totally comfortable in his own skin. This is apparent from the beginning: here is more from the first page:

‘I thought you’d be here hours ago.’
It’s after ten and I was due at six. My mouth’s gone dry, but I smile, friendly as I can.
‘I missed the connection,’ I say.
I’ve not meant the lie, but she’s forced me.

Hmm, now I really was wondering who this is and, given the suggestion that the novel is about a crime, I wondered whether he is the criminal and whether he had already committed a crime? I also started to wonder as I continued to read the first few pages whether he was an unreliable narrator. But no, he is essentially reliable; he is, in fact, very much himself – but himself is a complex (aren’t we all) human being who carries quite a bit of baggage. I’m not quite sure how Hyland does it but throughout the novel she manages to unsettle her readers and keep us that way: at times we empathise with Patrick and feel sympathy for him and then suddenly he distresses if not horrifies us – and we wonder anew, Who is this man?

MJ Hyland

MJ Hyland, London, 2008 (Courtesy: MJ Hyland via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In my opening para I said it was a quick and seemingly simple read. This is because the style is simple and direct. Patrick tells his story in present tense, with just the occasional flashback. Sentences are mostly short and simple, and the paragraphs tend to be short too. There is quite a lot of dialogue and not a lot of description. And what description there is tends to be short, sharp and vivid (“This blow is like a dose of poison in my veins, a hot sharp shot through my legs and arms, through my bowels and bladder”). Patrick is introspective at times but he doesn’t wallow in it. All this gives us a picture of a pretty simple character, which he is – and isn’t at the same time. There is, we are aware, quite a gap between what he says and thinks (most of the time) which could make him seem coldly manipulative. Yet, he’s not that. It’s more that he’s a somewhat damaged soul trying to survive in a world that doesn’t seem to go the way he would like – and it is this that leads to his trouble.

He likes to be in control (“I wanted her to go, and now she’s gone it’s like rejection, feels like it was her idea and not mine”) but he doesn’t try to bend others to his will. He has an uncomfortable relationship with the truth (“She put her hand on her heart and gives me a big smile and I’m reminded of when I told the girl in the theatre foyer that I was nervous and how the truth got a good reaction out of her as well”) but it’s more to do with self-protection than with any specific desire to deceive others. He has a complicated relationship with his family and they with him, but most of what we know is from his perspective so it is difficult to know the “truth” (if  a simple “truth” there can be in families). As he says:

I’m not sure if the truth will make any sense. The truth is, I thought I was rejecting my mother when I left home … But it turns out she was the one doing the rejecting and it’s just the same with my father.

The “real” truth, though, is probably somewhere in between.

Does he* grow throughout the novel and is there a resolution? To some extent he does get to know himself better but the resolution seems to be more that he learns to live with his situation (“life’s shrinking to a size that suits me more”) rather than grow as a person. But maybe that’s what maturity/development is really about?

Whatever the case, this is one of those truly original creations – a character who, as the back blurb says, “is fully himself and yet stands for all of us”. I haven’t been so intrigued by and engrossed in a character for a long time. The plot is slim but I barely noticed. I’ll definitely be reading more Hyland.

MJ Hyland
This is how
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009
ISBN: 9781921656484

Review copy supplied by Text Publishing.

* An aside. I couldn’t help wondering at times whether Patrick, with his social awkwardness and slightly obsessive behaviour, might be autistic to some level, but this never comes out and I am uncomfortable ascribing a pathology to a character when the author hasn’t done so.