Thursday, 21 July 2011

M.J. Hyland, This is How

Book cover courtesy
Text Publishing
We were envious of our absent travelling members as about seven of us gathered on a wintry evening to discuss this thought provoking novel. One of our travellers had emailed her response to the book - that lives can change catastrophically in a moment, as happened to the doomed, naive young Oxtoby, unloved by his family as being too "different".

We remarked on the very spare style of writing, with short, simple sentences using few adjectives so that it was difficult to tell exactly when it was set (maybe the sixties?). Some of us really liked the writing, and even though some normally prefer more lushly detailed prose with a rich sense of time and place (OK, me!), in this case we agreed that the lack of descriptive language and other digressions, along with the almost constant use of the present tense, helped the reader to be "in the head" of a character who would otherwise have been very difficult to understand. We remarked on the way the author created a sense of impending doom, building up tension with very few words, but odd, so you think there's something going on.

It was remarked that Oxtoby was a naive and dissociated person, lacking social skills and like an observer in his own life, almost mildly autistic. His parents, especially his father didn't understand him, saying that he "lacked the knack for happiness". He presumptuously assumed that his new landlady might be interested in him on first acquaintance. We noted the telling contradictions and repressed feelings around his response to the break-up with his girlfriend:

"She said she was breaking up with me because I didn't know how to express my emotions. The thing is, I didn't have that many. As far as I was concerned it was pretty simple. I was in love with her and I liked our life and we laughed a lot and it felt good to be in bed with her and have her touching me"...
"I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn't know how to make with words. But I didn't, and when she'd closed the front door I said 'OK then', and 'Goodbye, then.' Afterwards I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed hard enough to send her flying.
And I got this sentence in my head, over and over, 'You broke my heart and now I've broken your spine'"...

We discussed the actual murder of his sleeping housemate, wondering to what extent the death was intentional.

"I take the adjustable wrench and go to his room... I step forward, lift the wrench in my right hand and bring it down. Only once, a good, certain blow to his temple, not heavy, and the wrench bounces..."

Yet in his own mind later it seemed to be a mere accident ("I only hit him once"). When asked in court, his acquaintances agreed with him that "he is not a murderer". As the author no doubt intended, this prompted us to wonder what a murderer was supposed to be like. We noticed that while Oxtoby seems to feel shame and embarrassment, he feels no actual guilt over the death. The guard remarked that everybody in the prison is innocent.

Oxtoby's response to the harsh, degrading reality of prison life was discussed. He had loved his Grandmother who had been able to get him to articulate what he most wanted to do with his life and was able to validate that for him. In prison he talks to a psychologist who is also able to connect with him. He is able to hug her, and use some of that good feeling to help his unappealing cellmate. It was remarked that the book's last scene also touched on the theme of male sexuality including homosexuality which recurs through the book. We didn't agree about the extent to which he had grown and changed through the experience of prison, or whether it was only that, once he was used to it, he was more comfortable in the controlled world of prison than he had been in the overstimulating outside world.

Apparently the author interviewed a few murderers before writing "This is How". It made a big impression on us and we agreed that it was a chillingly convincing window into the mind of a murderer, maybe especially chilling as the reader is able to understand and even like him, and almost come to share his view that it was merely a forgivable mistake.


  1. Great summary of our discussion Sue. Thanks a bunch...

    A week or so after our meeting I listened to a long interview with Hyland on Slow TV. She raised the issue of people describing her characters as being autistic but she said that that's not how she conceived them. In fact, she said she did not want to "pathologise" her characters, did not want to have a "neat cause and effect". She's not interested in why, but simply wants her characters to be "as complicated as we are". This is why her endings are not neat too - she is deliberate about not tying it all up. This, besides her wonderful style, is why I like her and will read more

  2. Thanks Sue, and yes I think she succeeded well in making Oxtoby "as complicated as we are." We of course, did wonder why though. On re-reading the above I think I've left his act too open to interpretation, and was tempted to add a sentence describing it in his own bald words. That lead me to another question. Should we try to avoid spoilers in covering our discussions as though writing a normal review? That would make it difficult to write up the discussion of a book like this and I already failed! Alternatively, should I put *spoiler alert* at the head of this review? What do people think?

  3. Did you really spoil? It's such as open-ended book that I'm not sure you did really. I think it is hard to write up a report without sometimes spoiling - so I'm happy with an upper case SPOILER ALERT rather than not doing it because it is meant to be a report rather than a review (at least that's how I see it. What do others think?

    PS In her Slow TV interview, as I recollect, she said there were 4 possible readings of the ending!

  4. PPS What do you mean, you already failed? I don't see any failure. I see a great report.

  5. Well thanks again Sue. You're too kind! I meant that I'd already spoiled in discussing the murder. When I started reading the book I didn't realise it was about a murderer, which added to the experience I think. I'm altering one paragraph and adding the spoiler alert.

  6. I wondered if the murder was what you meant BUT I really don't call that a full spoiler given that it occurs fairly early in the book ... but still I suppose a SPOILER ALERT never hurts. I certainly wasn't expecting it!


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