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leyla

This is How

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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.

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This Is How seems to be stuck in a timewarp. I wonder whether the manuscript might have started its life set in more recent times before being redrafted to set it in the late 1960s. That’s the only explanation I can think of for some of the very bizarre inconsistencies.

 

For example, despite the setting in the 1960s, we find references to Mr Muscle cleaner; to lethal injections; drugs coming over the wall in tennis balls; and sanitation in English prison cells. In a tour de force, we find our hero’s cellmate flushing food down the loo in the cell just a few lines before slopping out – which wasn’t the only contradictory references to sinks, flushing loos, recesses and slopping out. And then there were the plain bizarre occurrences: green uniforms for both prisoners and the officers; use of overnight (and over weekend) holding cells in crown courts for no apparent reason, despite the court and prison being in the same town; junk food (with nary a mention of boiled vegetables or custard); and white prison vans with cubicles. Ironic indeed that Maria Hyland had not heard or a Black Maria.

 

All of this, I’m afraid, distracted somewhat from the story – which was not a million miles away from her two previous novels. Disaffected young man (Patrick Oxtoby) has difficulty with interpersonal relationships and communications; kills his fellow lodger (Welkin) despite never having shown any sign of violence in the past, and lands up in prison. Oxtoby narrates in the first person and, particularly in the first half of the novel, is almost monosyllabic. Oxtoby is unable to convey his troubled soul and the actual motivation behind the murder (anxiety that Welkin might have stolen his hammer) suggests a quickness of temper that couldn’t have failed to show itself up to that point in his life.

 

What follows is a fairly inaccurate version of the staple arrest, trial and imprisonment procedural. For a more convincing version, please see Carlo Gebler’s A Good Day For A Dog or Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. Or even watch an episode of Porridge.

 

The novel does have redeeming features. In particular, there is a degree of ambiguity to Oxtoby’s sexuality. He pays a great deal of attention to the physical appearance of the male characters – and also imagines being overpowered by them. He perceives sexual advances from the men in a variety of circumstances, often despite evidence that the men are straight. But then again, Oxtoby claims to have desires for both his landlady and a waitress in a café. Perhaps, though, when he is upset at the thought of Ian Welkin being involved with either of the two women, he is jealous about Welkin rather than about the women.

 

It also has to be said that This Is How is quite readable; the simple language and frequent dialogue keep the pages turning. Whilst at times the novel can feel slow – especially in the first part where Oxtoby’s life just drifts – it does pick up in the second when the process starts to fill in the gaps.

 

But overall, This Is How is not as good as MJ Hyland’s previous two novels. It lacks some of the precision and clarity; it lacks a strong character at its heart; it lacks a sense of direction. And most of all, it seems to have lacked a competent editor. Three stars feels generous, but two might have been mean.

 

***00

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It's a while since I read it, Mr HG, so I've probably just have forgotten, but where did it say it was set in the 1960s?

Re the toilet arrangements in the cells, I got the impression that some of them had a toilet and others didn't, so that some prisoners slopped out and others didn't have to.

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I didn't really like this, but as I did read it through and not abandon it I'm being a little harsh.

 

The time period is the first thing I'd like to readdress. I thought it was a present-day novel at first and didn't realise until later from reading other forums that this all happened in the 1960s. I thought that the fact he worked on cars from that era would have been perfect understandable as they were classics and he didn't work on Ford Cortinas or Austin Princesses.

 

The interior narrative was well done, especially the way he felt about his mum.

 

What I didn't like is that there was no story and no ending. It was just stuff that happened (he moved to a new town to get away from his old life) and then he just spends the last third of the novel in prison. The end. It's two different novels in one and it doesn't gel for me.

 

I haven't read any other books by Hyland and this leaves me on the fence with regards to reading more of her work. It wasn't terrible and as MisterHobgoblin says he (Oxtoby) isn't necessarily as heterosexual as he'd like to think he is and so the narration is nicely ambiguous, and the book as a whole does have a 'must read another page' writing style, but I just didn't really care about any of the characters.

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Try MJ Hyland's How The Light Gets In. I think that's her strongest book, and it seems to be the prototype from which the others have been adapted. I really enjoyed it.

 

It would be unfair to write Hyland off just because of one bad book.

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I'm more than willing to give the author another try and will definitely keep an eye out for what I see is her first novel. I didn't think this was 'bad' just inconsistent and a bit 'here and there' if that makes sense. Certain parts I liked, other parts, not so much. I never knew how the narrator really felt about the landlady.

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I was disappointed. It came with the usual hype of a new novelist on the up, but I wasn't involved deeply with Oxonby. I felt the writer would have done better to have done more research into prison life if that's what interested her - or less if she's a true novelist rather than a mere journalist looking for a cause to champion.

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Based on the progression from How The Light Gets In , through Carry Me Down, to This Is How, I’d say that MJ Hyland is the opposite of a new writer on the up. She seems to be a good writer with only one story and to be in bad need of some new ideas.

 

I didn’t pick up any particular journalistic crusade in her works. One of the failings of This Is How is that it seemed to lack any point. As Adrian says, it feels like a hybrid of two novels (novellas?) sellotaped together. It also seems to have been surprisingly plot driven for a novel that seems to strive for being character led. None of us seems to have bonded with Oxonby or even to have disliked him. Despite such a thin character, the book was readable.

 

So, being plot led, it makes the lack of research, fact checking and internal consistency all the more astonishing. Perhaps as a result of the Booker shortlisting, her editor doesn’t dare to get involved. Or perhaps her editor did not have the right cultural background to spot the mistakes.

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