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!
Carry me down
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2007 (orig. 2006)