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.