M.J. Hyland’s This is How
(Canongate, 2009)

This is not the first of M.J. Hyland’s novels that I’ve read. How the Light Gets In (2004) is the story of a Sydney teenager transplanted into an American family as an exchange student and Carry Me Down (2006) is the story of a 12-tear-old Irish boy: I’ve read them both.

With these two novels behind me, here is what I expected — and found — in her most recent novel, This is How: (1) complete immersion in a single voice; (2) a bizarrely compelling plot; (3) a multi-layered intensity; (4) an almost-immediate and sustained sense of my admiration for the crafting of the work; and (5) a feeling (at times overwhelming) of being unsettled and disturbed as a reader.

Here are some short quotes that will give a sense of what’s particularly striking about this novel. Note that the pronoun ‘she’ refers to a different person in the first two quotes.

“She said she was breaking up with me because I didn’t know how to express my emotions. The thing is, I didn’t have that many. As far as I was concerned, it was pretty simple. I was in love with her and I liked our life and we laughed a lot and it felt so good to be in bed with her and have her touching me. I liked what we had.”

The fact that the story is told completely and unceasingly from a single perspective, and furthermore from the perspective of a person whose emotional state is questioned by more than one person, makes the reading experience simultaneously more straightforward and more complex. On one hand, information is delivered directly but, on the other, it’s direct from Patrick.

Patrick’s voice (like Idora’s in Austin Clarke’s More) is insisting, expansive and persuasive, and more-than-a-little uncomfortable at times. Sometimes the uncomfortable part comes from a sense that something is not quite right, but you can’t quite figure out what’s wrong either.

“She links her arm through mine and, as I look at the water, I imagine how she’d sink and her ugly short dress would float up and surround her head like a jellyfish.”

Patrick is the embodiment of ambivalence, his emotions startlingly contradictory. Some of that seems appropriate to his age as, for instance, when he wants to be kind to his mother and grateful for her concern but, moments later, wants to appear so independent so as not to even notice — let alone have need of — her gestures. As a young man, desperate for connection and independence, yearning for and disdaining intimacy of all sorts, he is typically contrary at times.

“When I got the news I rode my bike to the new estate being built around behind the chocolate factory and dug a hole in the ground and screamed into it. I screamed about how fucking stupid the world is.”

But there is something different about Patrick. The tension he carries with him is overwhelming and, at times, it takes him outside of himself. It’s not immediately noticeable in the narrative, but through his awareness of other characters’ reactions to him (for instance, his palms are too sweaty and he notices that someone shaking his head is aware of this).

One of the waitresses observes that Patrick always sits with his back to the wall, facing the door of the restaurant, and she says that her dad believes that only people who are either very nervous or very controlling do that. At times Patrick strikes you as a little bit of both, but most of the time he is a rather ordinary young man, struggling to fit into a small town, finding his feet as a mechanic, looking for his way in the world.

I’ve used his name six times in these few paragraphs, and it would be tempting to say that this novel is entirely about characterization, but that’s not true. I would call Austin Clarke’s More a novel with One Voice, in which the voice is the most powerful and prevalent aspect of the storytelling. But This is How is also very much about plot and, even though you have a very limited perspective on events, you are driven to follow their outcome.

And I say ‘driven’ because throughout the novel, as the intensity that characterizes her work builds, and as my admiration for her skill and my discomfort with her wielding of it increases, there is a large part of me that would really rather stop reading. Nonetheless, like Barbara Gowdy, M.J. Hyland forces her readers into a position of compassion and compulsion. This is, indeed, a memorable read.