No 523 Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland (Book 5 of #20booksofsummer)

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A few years ago, I read MJ Hyland’s masterful This Is How and was drawn to her controlled and confident style. Carry Me Down is another exceptional character study that draws the reader into a very particular and insular world – albeit a somewhat claustrophobic one.

John Egan is 12 years old. Tall for his age, he is physically maturing to adolescence, but mentally he is almost wilfully childlike in his emotional responses, as if he does not want to face the inevitable pain of growing up. The novel relates John’s impressions of a momentous year of his life that is infused with sadness and confusion.

He lives with his father and mother in County Wexford, in his grandmother’s home and is obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records. He writes to them regularly, as he believes himself to be a human lie detector, because of his physical reactions when the truth is kept for him. Yet this belief says more about the adult relationships in John’s life than his actual ability to detect untruth.

I’ve noticed that when somebody lies it is almost as though something passes across their face, like a cloud; as though they fade from view slightly, become less real, less like a person you are used to seeing. It is hard to say exactly what happens. But whatever it is, I can see it.

His family life is in turmoil. His father, an electrician, is not working, but ‘studying’ in the hope of being accepted as a student at Trinity College Dublin. One feels that this is as much of a pipe dream, as John’s wish to be listed in the Guinness Book of Records.

Like his son, John’s father feels that he is special and that no one is noticing.

John’s mother is a puppet-maker and John has an often unnatural attachment to her, acting younger than his age when around her.

I want her to tickle me but I know it will start out feeling good and end up feeling bad.

The more I move away, the more she digs under my armpits. We don’t speak and I pretend to laugh, pretending to be enjoying myself, and the silence during these episodes makes them stranger as though we both know I’m pretending.

His grandmother is obviously feeling the pressure of housing her extended family and as tensions rise in the cramped house, John’s life will be turned upside down, both by the actions of those around him and his reaction to his changing situation.

His school life is not much better and after a trick goes wrong that sees him wet himself in front of his class, he loses his best friend and becomes more and more isolated, retreating into his confused thoughts.

The book is told entirely from John’s point of view, in simple flattened prose that sometimes deadens the turmoil and drama in John’s life. This is a novel where it is important to listen to the gaps in the narrative and to allow the atmosphere to direct attention. What John doesn’t tell, still manages to be told through the intense fragments and impressions of a fraught family life.

John at times comes across as autistic – he has an acute fear of embarrassment and is extremely sensitive to the physicality of the world around him. He is disgusted by the bodily functions of others and by the changes in his own overgrown body. He clings to childhood talismans and games, as if he genuinely wants to remain pre-adolescent forever.

The mood is unsettling and claustrophobic, mirroring John’s life. His father is prone to mood swings and violence, while his mother simultaneously coddles her son and pushes him away. John does not know what or how to be. His inability to comprehend the machinations of the adults in his life lead him to believe that everything is a lie, to be noted in his Gol of Siel (Log of Lies).

Carry Me Down is an intense novel and a sublime character study, submerging the reader entirely within John’s mind. It brilliantly captures his singular vision of the world to the extent that when John’s desperation leads him to desperate action, sympathy for him is not lost.

With no access to anything but John’s experience, the book can be at times difficult to read, despite its superficial simplicity. At times, I felt a need to come up for air. Yet it has some moments of welcome dark humour and a strong narrative pull that trusts the reader to look deeper and find the truth that is hidden – to be as receptive to the reality of John’s situation as he is to the lies that threaten to engulf him.

As an exploration of the pain of the transition from child to adolescent and a warning to the consequences of childhood love that is unreciprocated, Carry Me Down is an intelligent if discomfiting novel.

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12 Comments Leave a comment

  1. It sounds to me like people who enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time would like this book. Did you ever read that Mark Haddon book? I have not, but I did see the play in a cinema when it was aired live from from the National Theatre in London.

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  2. It’s interesting that Hyland chose to make her character an adolescent male. It’s a bit of a stereotype that people on the autism spectrum are all male.
    But leaving that aside, as the mother of a once-adolescent male, I find it fascinating that anyone can venture into that wall of silence and grunts and enigmatic facial expressions that characterise the communication style of the adolescent male. What they are thinking remains one of the great mysteries of our time…

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  3. As a self-diagnosed male on the spectrum I do recognise a lot of this from my childhood, and as it’s likely that autism has a genetic component I can see it in some of the parents’ preoccupations and actions. This sounds like an accurate portrayal of a child with that condition — I can understand the comparison with Haddon’s novel — wonderfully conveyed and, from your review, certainly worth reading, thank you.

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      • Wow yeah this was a good read. Very memorable. I often find child narrators, or narrators who have differently wired brains, jarring, with the vocabulary used over stylised. I found Eleanor Oliphant a particularly annoying example of this. Here the simplicity was perfect, with the emphasis equally given to the quirks of all the characters through their words and reactions. I also genuinely felt like I had no idea what was going to happen next, the sense of suspense was super powerful, even though the novel was just about every day life.

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