This is How
By MJ Hyland
Canongate £12.99, 320 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39
More than a hundred pages into MJ Hyland’s new novel, a girl is taken out for a drive in a borrowed Mercedes and remarks that it’s “like something from James Bond”. The driver asks if she likes those films. She replies that she hasn’t seen From Russia with Love yet, but she liked Dr No.
Until then, it hadn’t even occurred to me that This is How might not be set in the present day. When did those first Bond films come out? Early 1960s? In a few brief moments, the story spun and changed before my eyes. And then again in some interesting and more crucial way, it didn’t. Because the real power of Hyland’s strange shape-shifter of a novel lies in its unforced timelessness, the fact that it never for one moment reads like a period piece.
It may say more about me than the novel itself that I didn’t see the clues. When I leafed back through, of course there they all were, from the descriptions of the landlady’s “frock” to the absence of mobile phones. If Hyland did her research, then I admire her for daring to bury almost all trace of it, concentrating instead on a relentlessly colourless, first person narrative that perfectly expresses her protagonist’s deadened relationship with the world.
Like her first two novels, How the Light Gets In and the Booker-shortlisted Carry Me Down, this book is preoccupied with the life of an outsider. Patrick Oxtoby, early 20s, university drop-out, sometime car mechanic, comes to lodge in a small seaside town. He’s a man of few words. All we know about him is the little he allows himself to divulge. His fiancée recently ditched him. He carries a toolkit that he doesn’t like to let out of his sight. He has a cold, distant father and an annoyingly cheery mother whose unannounced visit seems to cause him stress.
But there’s something else about Oxtoby – a sense that all is not well, that he’s unable to be completely at ease in the world. Most noticeably, he seems to have an almost autistic inability to read emotion – in himself or in other people. When it comes to women, this leaves him especially vulnerable. Though he fantasises about sexual possibility, it’s intimacy he really craves – the feeling of mattering to someone. Meanwhile, we cringe for him as he lurches from one embarrassingly deluded encounter to another, always taking straightforward friendliness to be a sign of something deeper.
It can only end badly. Increasingly obsessed by his attractive landlady, Oxtoby becomes angry when a fellow lodger flirts with her. When, later that night, he takes the wrench from his beloved toolkit and strikes the man a fatal blow on the head, you don’t understand where the violence has come from. Neither, it seems, does he.
I confess I read on hoping that this mystery might be solved for me. How and why did Oxtoby end up like this? Is it to do with his mother, his family, or even that much referred-to toolkit of his? Why did he drop out of university? I wondered whether all the ominous clues that Hyland had scattered might finally amount to something, and explain why an awkward but apparently benign social misfit became a murderer.
Instead, the final two-thirds of the book are simply an account of Oxtoby’s trial, his time in prison, and his slow and painful adjustment to the man he must accept that he has become. My curiosity was briefly reignited when Oxtoby is singled out for sessions with a prison psychologist but even these fail to shed much light on his past.
Does this matter? The honest answer is I’m still not sure. The descriptions of prison life are impeccable and chilling in their detail, entirely convincing in their evocation of how men rub along together when deprived of freedom, family and hope. Oxtoby’s relationships with his fellow inmates are devastatingly drawn, almost thrilling to read. I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intensely and wholeheartedly masculine voice from the pen of a woman.
But novels are strange beasts, and you can’t always know how one is going to affect you. I finished This is How feeling slightly short-changed, disappointed that I’d somehow been denied a solution to the mystery that its author had set up.
Three or four days later, however, Hyland’s white-hot prose was still smouldering in my head and I found myself intensely, almost helplessly, moved by Oxtoby and his tragedy.
Some novels play a long game. It’s all credit to Hyland that I’m still thinking about this one, still excited and perturbed by it, still trying to work out what exactly it is that I just read.
Julie Myerson is author of ‘The Lost Child’ (Bloomsbury)