July 2009

Arts & Letters

‘This Is How’ by MJ Hyland

By Michael Williams

Dread is, perhaps, too strong a word, but from the first page of MJ Hyland’s new novel, This Is How, it is hard to resist a mounting sense of unease. Fans of Hyland’s earlier work will quickly see parallels. At the centre of Carry Me Down, her Booker short-listed second novel, was John Egan, a difficult, troubled boy. In This Is How, she is drawn again to an emotionally inarticulate character, brimming with wounded fury and frustrated sorrow. Once again she gives us the intimacy of the first-person voice, the immediacy of the present tense. And Hyland has again produced a masterful study in claustrophobia and loneliness.

In a small boarding house, somewhere on the English seaside, young Patrick Oxtoby is in the process of moving in. He is leaving behind his parents, an aborted university degree and a failed engagement. When he spares a thought for his former fiancée, his mind is black with disappointment, even a hint of violence. Hyland keeps all proceedings so close to her protagonist that his paranoia, his anxiety, is ours.

When we meet him, Patrick is late. He has had a couple of drinks to steel himself against meeting new people. He carries a toolbox. In halting bursts he makes uncomfortable small talk with the landlady, Bridget, whose polite manner hides past hurts of her own. He meets the other two men in the house and immediately struggles to make any connection. He sits in his room, waiting to join the world.

To say too much about the ensuing plot would do the reader a disservice: this is not exactly a pleasurable read, but its rewards come from the slow unfolding of events, the small hopes and sudden, sickening disappointments. Tragedy feels inevitable, even if the form it will take remains elusive for much of the book, but this isn’t misery-mongering or melodrama. Far from it. Hyland, always a beautiful writer, approaches her subject with such a dry matter-of-factness that it’s hard not to empathise with Patrick – to hope that maybe, somehow, things will end well.

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