M. J. Hyland — This Is How

June 29, 2009 at 5:51 pm Leave a comment

M. J. Hyland has an unusual fondness for violent misfits. In her excellent novel Carry Me Down (2006), her pubescent protagonist John Egan learns the hard way that covering mummy’s face with a pillow won’t necessarily make her any happier. Now, in This Is How (2009), Hyland presents the story of Patrick Oxtoby, a down-and-out mechanic in a seaside town who turns out to be a budding Raskolnikov tribute act. In a drunken rage, poor anger-prone Patrick learns the hard way that clobbering someone with a wrench can have serious consequences.


The publisher seems oddly reluctant to tell you that this is a book about the aftermath of a violent crime, referring only to Patrick’s “tragic undoing” and supplying a pretty little cover with a man and a dog. In reality, this misleadingly advertised novel is a compelling and macabre journey to the dark side of human existence.

Like Carry Me Down, This Is How is told through sparse, present-tense, first-person narration that rattles along at a crackling pace, capturing Patrick’s shock and vulnerability as events spiral rapidly beyond his control. The result is a gripping, readable and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a memorable antihero.

Patrick protests his innocence on the grounds that he never “intended” to do anything wrong:

My mind played hardly any part but my body acted and, as far as the law is concerned, my body may as well be all that I am.

Is there some truth in this “don’t blame me!” determinism? Is it Patrick really responsible for his own actions? This is the central question the novel explores. Hyland’s aim is to fill in the shades of grey where society would sooner see black and white, and in this she succeeds.

Personally, I don’t buy Patrick’s argument. Anger, loneliness, loss of control, ignorance, drunkenness… these are causes of violence, but not excuses. We don’t have to let our irrational bloodlust get the better of us, and when we do, we’re responsible for what results. It’s left to the reader to decide whether Patrick deserves to be held accountable for his horrific deed. If you read it let me know what you think.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Hyland MJ. Tags: , , , , , , .

Michael Chabon — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay Colm Tóibín — Brooklyn

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