MJ Hyland’s third novel, This Is How, opens as the narrator, 23-year-old Patrick Oxtoby, arrives at the seaside boarding house he has just moved to, shortly after his fiancée has broken off their engagement.
I put my bags down on the doorstep and knock three times. I don’t bang hard like a copper, but it’s not as though I’m ashamed to be knocking either
This examination of everything that he does is a central feature of Patrick’s fascinating character and drives the rest of this stunning, visceral novel, which follows Patrick from jilted boyfriend to convicted prisoner in jail, charged with the worst of crimes.
As the novel begins, Patrick is hoping to start a new life, in a new place. He has taken a room in a boarding house and has a new job lined up as a car mechanic. His fiancée Sarah has left him because he can’t express his emotions but according to Patrick, ‘the thing is, I didn’t have that many’. His internal reaction to the ending of the relationship subsumes those emotions into imagined violence,
“I wanted,” thinks Patrick, replaying the scene in his mind, “to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words… I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘you broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine’. It was something I’d never say… I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much.”
It’s an ominous thought and many more like it surface in Patrick’s head as he tries to leave his past behind. He takes seaside walks, starts a new job and tries to find himself a new girlfriend, but through his dispassionate internal monologue, his dependency on alcohol and his obsessive checking of his tool kit, it becomes apparent that the end of his relationship is only one of many problems.
According to Patrick’s father, he was born without ‘that knack for happiness’. Only feeling able to express his wish to be a mechanic to his beloved grandmother, he responds to her death by digging a hole in the ground and screaming in to it. His coping mechanisms don’t improve as he gets older and he has a complete inability to know what to say or do in any given situation. His need for precision and his painful self-awareness seem like a way for him to control a world that appears unstable and confusing.
I want this and I don’t want this, and there’s a feeling in me like I’m sorry for the way I’ve been to her and there’s a feeling that I’ve no notion what I’ll do next. Today, tomorrow or the next day. I don’t know where I’ll go, or what I want to do, a feeling like there’s nothing I’ve got to look forward to.
He is unable to participate in daily small talk, always questioning the motives of those around him. He has a precarious relationship with his landlady Bridget and struggles to communicate with his fellow lodgers Welkin and Findall.
Where Patrick thinks he has little emotion, he is actually being overwhelmed by it. His body expresses the pain he cannot through excruciating head and neck pain, vomiting to expunge tension and uncontrollable sobbing. He speaks without hearing his own voice and questions what he has said and what he has heard. The slightest things cause him great frustration, and an unexpected visit from his mother elicits an emotional reaction that he once again erupts in violence.
I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my tool kit. I put the pillow on the floor and put a towel over it and bash good and hard.”
Hyland brings us right inside Patrick’s head. The story is told with great detail, but few descriptive pointers. Like Patrick, we are unsure of what his employer or his landlady think of him. Are Welkin and Findall bullying him or is their behaviour just an attempt at banter? The book is set in the 1960s, but even that takes time to establish. The reader experiences the world through Patrick’s inner thoughts and we are groping for signposts and indicators just as he is. This shared dissociation means that we may not like Patrick, but we can certainly understand how he feels.
Like when you lose something really important, leave it on a bus seat or something stupid like that. You know? That fear and shame that goes through you like poison…Well, I get that feeling of shame after doing something stupid, I get it hundreds of times a day.
The tension builds to an inexplicable and ruinous act of violence that Patrick can neither accept nor defend. This is How focuses on how lives can be changed in an instant, how one decision, one emotional reaction, can change the course of lives. The second half of the novel follows Patrick as he is tried and sentenced for his crime and adapts to life in prison.
Hyland depicts the trial with precision and immediacy, rendering the self-denial, fear and dull bureaucratic detail with a keen eye. In prison, forced into the close human contact that he has so far avoided for most of his life, Patrick adapts to this world that has the manageable rules he could never find in the outside. He finds himself able to form relationships, with his cell-mate and a psychiatrist and in a heart-breaking admission he admits;
I’m sometimes happier in here…life’s shrinking to a size that suits me.
As his world shrinks to the size of a prison cell, Patrick comes to understand himself better than he ever could before and if his self-awareness has limits, it is we, the readers who come to fully understand him. It is to Hyland’s credit that Patrick remains an empathetic character throughout and as he grows in to himself in prison, we are presented with a haunting and tragic reminder of the man he might have otherwise become.
This is How is an absorbing and complex novel. It is a portrait not of a monster, but of someone who has made monstrous choices, that even he cannot understand. Hyland does not judge Patrick, rather she presents him as fully human and her novel is shot through with the hints of what this man might have been, which gives the story real force and emotional impact. The novel is beyond characterisation – it is not a crime novel and not a thriller yet it is one of the most thrilling books I have read in a long time. Its brilliance lies in the compassion and humanity in the depiction of what could happen to any of us if the wrong choice is made.
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20 Books of Summer: 8/20
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