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.