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  1. The author M.J.Hyland is drawn to dysfunctional characters. Her first novel, How The Light Gets In (2003), packed a potent punch in its story of a teenage girl spectacularly going off the rails and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. For her second, Carry Me Down (2006), which won The Encore Prize and the Hawthornden Prize and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, she chose as her subject a young boy with personality problems living in poverty. Both novels were related in a highly distinctive style - very spare, almost stark prose in short vignettes where not much happened in the way of action but atmosphere bristled. Characters moods darkened in an instant like clouds moving over the sun, sparse dialogue occurred and life unwound in its unsettling and often bleak way. This Is How, published on July 2nd 2009, again displays Hyland’s idiosyncratic style, with mini scenes following one another like staccato bullet shots, most - in the first part of the book at any rate - filled with the mundane comings and goings of the dissatisfied narrator’s life. The story is related in the first person using the present tense which involves the reader in an almost claustrophobic way right from the start - it is almost as if we are there, unwanted intruders forced to watch the protagonist relentlessly ruin his own life. The narrator is Patrick Oxtoby, a twenty three year-old man who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend who was frustrated by his inability to express emotion. Patrick has never been one to display his feelings, having always been something of a loner who perpetually feels he doesn’t fit in. He often felt expendable in the company of his grammar school friends Geoff and Daniel, and in his working class family he felt the odd one out because unlike the other family members, he went to university. But even there he couldn’t fit in, dropping out after a year to become a car mechanic, the only field in which he knows he excels. The experience of having the stable rug of his relationship pulled out from under his feet unhinges Patrick somewhat. He packs his bags and leaves his parents’ home, moving to a small seaside town where he takes a room in a boarding house. Resentment at his life unlocks a suppressed rage in him. When his worried mother appears a few days after he’s moved, he spurns her, responding to her warmth and concern with sullen monosyllables. He develops a crush on his attractive landlady, the widowed Bridget Bowman, and is drawn into an uneasy, envious camaraderie with a fellow boarder, the effortlessly attractive and care-free posh boy Ian Welkin. The novel follows Patrick as his surly discontentment together with circumstance - a new boss who doesn’t appreciate his skill, mounting sexual frustration, jealousy of Welkin - cause him to sink intractably into trouble. Hyland’s brusque style and multiple short scenes are well suited to portraying this lost, inarticulate man. The first person narration means that instead of Hyland telling us what Patrick is feeling and experiencing, the reader lives it for themselves through Patrick’s brooding thoughts and actions. We hover uncomfortably as he drifts and drinks, root for him as he makes tentative moves of friendship to a waitress and shudder as he haplessly engineers his own downfall. Patrick’s observations are unsophisticated but still striking. He notices his landlady has ‘a few stains between her teeth, like grout between tiles.’ On the beach he notes that ‘waves roll to the sand and suck as though for food and the sound of the sea is like applause.’ His inarticulacy masks tumultous emotions which cause him to seethe and simmer - he recalls that after his ex ended their engagement he ‘wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words.’ His thought on seeing his mother is ‘her dress is like a bus seat cover and it’s the same kind of ugly thing she wears every day of the year.’ His habit of blaming others for his own failures make him sound like a whiny brat, as in his bleating to his mother here: ‘You never asked me if I wanted to go to university, then you hated me when I didn’t stay.’ There’s a real sense that his poor parents couldn’t win - he huffs bitterly that his father and brother always left him out despite remembering that his father ‘made it worse’ by ’saying things like ‘Patrick, what do YOU want to do?’ ‘ Part one of the novel leads inexorably to the pointless and horrific act that will darken Patrick’s life - grimly conveyed in brutally simple words. Part two of the novel is based in prison as Patrick awaits and undergoes trial and serves part of his sentence for the crime he commits in part one. Hyland studied law and worked as a lawyer before turning to writing and so her inside knowledge allows her to paint a convincing picture of life inside. The lead-up to the trial and court case itself are reminiscent of D.B.C.Pierre’s Vernon God Little in that that the reader is involved, sweating as the lawyers fight it out and feeling for the troubled protagonist. There are also hints of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Kafka’s The Trial although obviously, unlike the latter, we know that Patrick is not innocent. This knowledge evokes a disturbing ambivalence since the reader knows Patrick has committed a crime but the senseless, futile nature of it invokes disbelief at his fate: what a waste. Hyland skillfully conveys Patrick’s own disbelief - throughout much of his time in remand he expects someone to come and free him at any time. The varied selection of fellow prisoners, guards and officers prevents the novel from slipping into cliche - the characters are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ caricatures. Some of the guards and officers are kind, some altruistically so and others with ulterior motives. Others are crooked. Similarly, the prisoners come in all hues of morality, with some - even murderers - managing to show decency and provoke sympathy for their horrific pasts while others are violent thugs. A paedophile rapist in denial says ‘twelve was the youngest. Eleven and a half…But I don’t do children. I’m not a paedophile.’ He further attempts to justify his crimes by adding ‘Basically, I get them into my car and usually they don’t even put up that much of a fight and they’re always wet once I get started.’ Patrick may not be good at expressing himself but there’s nothing wrong with his insight. At his trial he notices that his QC is fidgeting, ‘moving documents in and out of his black folders as though he hopes that moving them will erase what’s there and replace his watery words with better ones.’ Despite the bleak setting, there are occasional black elements of humour, such as this account of Patrick’s cellmate: ‘When he’s finished eating the prunes, he farts, a loud and putrid marathon, and then he sits on the toilet bowl and, when he’s finished shitting, he leans in over the toilet bowl. The stench is foul. ‘More good news’ he says. ‘Yesterday I had tiny black pebbles for shit, but today things are looking up. Yesterday I thought I had cancer. Today it looks like I’m fit as a fiddle.’ He crouches down beside the toilet and puts his hand inside the bowl. ‘Please don’t do that’, ‘ I say.’ And this introductory exchange between Patrick and another cell-mate: ‘ I’m Harper’ he says. I wouldn’t have a hope of defending myself against him. ‘I’m Oxtoby’. ‘Sounds like a ****ing soup’ he says. ‘Where’d you get a name like that?’ Hyland shows us a man who gradually changes from someone who can’t enjoy life or relate to people into someone capable of caring about and interacting with others, although the change is subtle so there is no implausibility and no corny born again scenario. Although the ending is uncertain and the threats of prison life have not vanished, the reader is left hoping that Patrick finds some peace. He states several times that if only he was free again, he would appreciate what he had. By the end, we know he will. Hyland has created another engrossing tale of a lost soul. This one ends with hope.
  2. I'm surprised that I can't find a thread about this book, given the enormous amount of positive comment on the Booker and Orange shortlist threads. Anyway, fans may be interested to see:
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