July 2009

Laura Castellano


This is How by M.J. Hyland

Patrick Oxtoby's self-conscious inner voice resonates throughout M. J. Hyland's third novel This is How. The narrator is an observer rather than a raconteur, whose unreliable nerves account for a beautifully mounting tension in the book.

Having just moved out of his parents' place and into a boarding house in a seaside town in England, Patrick Oxtoby slowly reveals his story. Growing up, he was considered the smarter brother. Successful in school, he went away to college, only to come home after an uncomfortable social situation involving a girl and a play. He became a mechanic, a profession he decided on at ten, but one he only pursued when he left college. He had always been afraid that his family would think being a mechanic was beneath him. And he is someone who is well aware of what people think. Now in his twenties, he has moved from his hometown to escape the embarrassment and hurt he imagines will ensue since his fiancÚ, Sarah, has left him.

Exploring the minds of introverts and misfits is Hyland's specialty. Her second novel, about a shy, frustrated young boy in an adults' world Carry Me Down, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (and won the Encore Award and Hawthornden Prize).

Her poetic descriptions of Patrick's observations are natural and insightful, if perhaps misconstrued: "She looks at me and I look at her and she takes a step back as though she blames the place where she's standing for the silence." While Patrick's every thought brings the reader closer, his every action seems to distance him from the others. Every conversation is a battle, and his nagging anxieties ("I won't say the right things," he thinks") exhaust him physically.

Although Patrick's mother seems to lack his same social issues, he admits she "thinks what I think." But that doesn't comfort him when she makes a surprise visit to the boarding house almost as soon as he's arrived. He doesn't address his emotions ("The thing is I don't have that many") and having his mother there forces him to think about his past, including Sarah. Although he understands that he has been unpleasant to his mother, this setback in his plan has put him off. He wants independence.

When his mother leaves, Patrick works diligently in his new job in the seaside town, but sometimes makes questionable decisions (like when he decides to tell his new boss there doesn't seem to be enough work for his newly hired nephew or when he takes a client's car out for a spin). But it's that same honesty that endears him to others. We can be sure of that, since, although this is unreliable first person narration, Patrick is at least reliable in conveying the minutiae of every situation.

The constant recounting of seemingly insignificant details is acceptable because we understand early in the book that Patrick moves at a somewhat slower pace than most. His careful meditation on every one of his actions is mesmerizing: "She sits with her legs tucked under her bum and I sit cross-legged. She's taller than me like this, so I move my legs under. It's not long before my knees hurt."

Also a resident of the boarding house is Ian Welkin: a foil to Patrick. Ian is a charismatic, well-educated, confident ladies-man. And while Patrick yearns for his approval, Ian vexes him. "Welkin's either making an offer of friendship or he's winding me up. I wish I didn't care either way. The thing is, I do." It is these matter-of-fact (and pretty universal) sentiments that allow Hyland to take complete control of the narrative.

Because Hyland's other characters exist for us only when Patrick is thinking of them or interacting with them, they remain pretty flat. Only their actions and (few) words define them. Their lack of background might detract from another novel, but not this one. Hyland has the uncanny ability to keep us marveling in the present. And it's this trust of Patrick in the squirmish present that leads to his most unforgiving moment.

The events that follow require Patrick to look back, to examine himself. When he eventually visits a psychiatrist, she relieves his long-lived tension in a rather simple and unconventional way when he asks for a hug. "I hold her now, not too hard, but close, really warm and really very close, and the mood of being wrapped round her, it's a mood and feeling so great I want to bawl." He is in the present again, finally.

The second half of the novel gives way to a story of affection, regret and loyalty. Hyland questions intentions and judgments through a most graceful character. Fellow boarder Ian Welkin says it best: "I think every man is mistaken about the kind of man he really is."



This is How by M.J. Hyland
Canongate Books Limited
ISBN: 1847673821
320 Pages


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