This is How by MJ Hyland
Philip Womack on the terse sophistication of novelist MJ Hyland
MJ Hyland is a novelist lavished with praise by the literary establishment for her terse, powerful sentences, her ability to speak volumes with the slightest of touches, and the way she leaves things unsaid. All of which are excellent qualities in a novelist, and all of which are present and correct in this, the Booker-nominated author’s latest offering.
The narrative drive is relentless, surging on and on in the toneless voice of Patrick Oxtoby, Hyland’s protagonist. Oxtoby is twenty-four and likes nothing better than fixing cars – indeed he’s dropped out of university to do so. From a respectable, upper-working-class family, he is the son that can never be happy, his mother smothering him, his father distant. He asks a girl to marry him; the novel begins with her refusal, and his flight.
This first third of the novel is exquisitely controlled, reminiscent of Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party, as Oxtoby goes to live in a boarding house by the sea. Here there is a sexually attractive landlady, Bridget, and two “posh” lodgers who attempt to befriend Oxtoby. But he’s more interested in his tool-kit, and in flirting with a waitress. The power struggles and the shadiness, the dreary, empty town and the simple pleasures of a hot breakfast are all very Pinter, but Hyland adds her own dash of brilliance – she makes us care so much about Oxtoby that when he misplaces his tool-kit it’s almost unbearable. Things appear to be going relatively well, as this broken man struggles to make himself whole again.
Unfortunately, Oxtoby’s own personality – his inability to be happy – changes things. Later in the novel he says, significantly, “My grandfather gave me a good winter coat when I turned sixteen ... And in less than three months or something I’d ripped it in three places on three nails ... If there’s a nail I’ll find it.” Hyland here makes him perform a violent act that borders on the unbelievable. Oxtoby, as it turns out, is something of a psychopath. The novel veers from its so far luminous territory into the greyness of the familiar. It’s all been done before: the psychopath’s cold viewpoint and self-justification; the diligently and clinically executed courtroom drama; the antiseptic lights of prison; the excruciating detail of everyday life in confinement.
One begins to wonder what exactly it is that causes such tizzies in the hearts of literary critics. Can it be. That short sentences. Are all that is needed? Hyland, it’s true, is a master of the conversation. She can catch the horrific awkwardnesses of interaction, as well as moments of touching beauty or sympathy. But it’s not quite enough. And also quite wearying.
It’s the final third where Hyland’s reputation is defended. An Oxtoby in prison is an Oxtoby potentially redeemed, through his relationships with the other inmates and the guards, and through his own self-betterment. There are wonderfully tender moments between the banged-up men, including a homoerotic frisson with a trainee lawyer in for the murder of his five-month-old son, and with his cell-mate, a wife-killing brute who wants to kill himself.
Hyland is a writer of great sophistication, and whilst this novel has its flaws (and what novel doesn’t), and whilst it has the precious, overworked feeling of a creative writing assignment, it’s still a moving, spare, powerful piece of work. Oxtoby’s psychiatrist says, “At the very back of the corridor there’s light”, and though he scoffs at her, we know that she’s right.
This is How is published by Canongate