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“Three weeks ago my fiancée Sarah was standing at the top of the stairs when she said, ‘I can’t marry you, it’s over,’ and when she was halfway down, I called out her name, but she didn’t stop, didn’t so much as look at me, just said, ‘Please don’t follow me.’ I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words. But I didn’t, and when she’d closed the front door I said, ‘Okay, then, and ‘Goodbye, then.”
The protagonist of MJ Hyland’s third novel This Is How is Patrick Oxtoby, a 20-something who ups and leaves his home, possessions, friends and family and relocates to a small seaside town after his fiancée breaks off their engagement. We meet him on his arrival at his new home, a small boarding house. There is little mention of his past and what is mentioned is often a thought triggered by what Patrick is doing in the present. Instead, the pages are filled with dialogue, brilliantly blunt and often awkward dialogue, detailing Patrick settling into the boarding house and meeting his neighbours. His Mum makes an unwelcome visit to see how he is and their beautifully fragile relationship represents what is wrong with all of Patrick’s relationships, “I want to speak and not to speak.”
His past is so elusive that you are almost waiting for his ghosts to come back and haunt him, to drive him towards the desperate course of action alluded to in the blurb. You feel sure that Sarah will come back into his life at some point and we will find out more about Patrick through the rehashing of their relationship. But they don’t. And she doesn’t. With a relentless pace, Hyland keeps you in the present tense so much so that if you wanted to turn around and look back at Patrick’s life, you might break your neck. The atmosphere builds as you are squashed further inside Patrick’s head, as he tries to make new friends, do well at his job and forge a new romantic connection, but you are not quite sure what it is building towards.
An then, Patrick commits a transgression. It takes only a few seconds to do and a short paragraph to document but it is enough to change his life forever.
Despite the meticulously crafted portrait of Patrick and the workings of his mind, Hyland leaves generous space for the reader to interpret what happens. Just as she never instructs us on any character’s tone of voice, she never tells us Patrick’s reasons for committing such an act. The fact that you don’t hate, or even dislike, Patrick by the end of the novel, despite his actions, begs the uncomfortable question; does somebody really have to be evil to commit a serious transgression?
The character study of Patrick, almost unbearably claustrophobic, portrays somebody who is flawed, certainly, but not evil. His inability to express his emotions causes him problems. “I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my toolkit. I put the pillow on the floor and put a towel over it and bash good and hard. And I count: one fucking stupid bitch, two fucking stupid bitch, three fucking stupid bitch…..” and in one of the best lines of the book, Patrick recalls his father telling him that, unlike his brother, he grew up “without the knack for happiness.”
But Hyland refrains from drawing any conclusions, and this is the brilliance of the book. Perhaps Patrick was always destined to do something like he did, but perhaps he wasn’t. His past has certainly shaped him but how much so? This makes This Is How a bold book. At its heart it is a bleak theme that people may not want to think about; normal people can do bad things. But Hyland writes so uniquely that you can’t help but think about it long after you have finished.
MJ Hyland’s This is How was published in 2009 and longlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Dublin International IMPAC Prize.
Emma Cooper is editor of Litro's visual arts channel LitroTV. She is a Bedfordshire based writer, passionate about films and books and in particular short stories. You can see more of her writing at www.skewedstories.com and www.readwave.com.