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Monday, 10 May 2010

This is How

This is How cover

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. – Anton Chekov[1]

This is how I read this book – sitting in my green, leather armchair in my office with my Garfield cushion in the small of my back. This is how long it took me to read – five days; it’s 376 pages long so that’s not bad for me. This is how I felt once I’d finished it – sad and a little disappointed because This is How does exactly what it says on the tin, it tells you how but not why. It tells you how Patrick Oxtoby arrives at a seaside resort, how he meets his mother, how he gets on with the people in the guesthouse, at his new job and with the nice girl from the café, it tells us how he gets himself into trouble and what happens – but it doesn’t tell us why.

There are three things you need to commit a crime: motive, opportunity and means. Of course the existence of all three of these isn’t proof that someone is guilty. Direct evidence is preferred, a “smoking gun” ideally. With circumstantial evidence there is always the shadow of Processed by: Helicon Filter; doubt. The smoking gun could be found in my hand but unless someone saw me fire it at the victim there is no real proof that I shot them; I might have simply – albeit stupidly – picked up the gun from where the real shooter dropped it.

I mention all of this because this novel revolves around a crime, the crime of murder in fact, a crime that Patrick Oxtoby is charged with, a crime that he may even have committed; it’s not absolutely certain. What is certain is that Patrick Oxtoby has committed a crime but not necessarily the crime for which he ends up being tried. He is guilty of assault. He admits that. We readers witness the assault. We know what he does right before it and directly after it. But did we witness a murder? And if it was murder, what kind was it? Was there “malice aforethought” or “reckless indifference” or is this accidental manslaughter? Most jurisdictions divide murder by degrees and sentence accordingly.

Patrick is a loner, an outsider. He arrives at Mrs Bowman’s boarding house in an unnamed seaside resort wearing an old coat gifted to him by his grandfather and lugging his treasured toolbox:

I’ve got everything in that kit. More than five years worth of collecting. My adjustable spanner, ball peen hammer, pliers, socket set, hackshaw frame, feeler gauges and distributor contact spanners.

It really is his pride and joy. The first thing he does when he gets into his room his tuck it safely under his bed. He is due to start work as a mechanic on Monday which gives him a few days to settle in and get to know the lie of the land not that there’s much to get to know: a couple of pubs, a café, a cinema, the beach.

The landlady, Bridget, a not unattractive widow, is friendly enough and there are only two other guests, Shaun Flindall and Ian Welkin:

Findall’s got a posh London accent and he’d have the looks of a movie star if not for his big ears.

Welkin’s voice is “even posher than Findall’s.” It’s not clear where this is set but wherever it is it’s only a hundred miles from Patrick’s hometown. After a few days Findall leaves for London to become “the head architect on a new office building, a bank headquarters” which leaves Patrick alone with Bridget and Welkin. And, yes, you’re way ahead of me – triangles make good drama; just ask Sartre (not that this book reminded me of Sartre in any other way but there is another French connection: Albert Camus).

Life After Life The initial inspiration for this novel was Tony Parker’s book Life After Life: Interviews with Twelve Murderers. One of these interviews is with a young man who lived in a lodging house and who killed a fellow lodger for no good reason. About the same time she read this book Hyland also reread Camus’ The Outsider, Peter Handke’s novel The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, which is a direct response to The Outsider, and André Gide’s The Vatican Cellars.[2]

There are some obvious similarities between This is How and The Outsider. Both Patrick and Meursault are strangers having recently arrived in a new town situated by the sea. Patrick is there to start a new job, Meursault to bury his mother. Patrick’s mother appears at the start of the novel. She arrives on his doorstep not long after he himself as just arrived; it’s clear he’s not pleased to see her and is not exactly responsive to her. Both Meursault and Patrick have difficulty connecting with people and yet make efforts to get girls. Both are intelligent however neither is well educated: both quit further education, Meursault to become a clerk with a shipping company, Patrick a mechanic. The girl Meursault goes around with is Marie; she used to work at the same firm with him. Patrick makes a play for Rachel, a waitress at the local café and about ten years older than him although if Bridget fell into his arms he wouldn’t exactly drop her. When Meursault is tried for murder his defence counsel lists his qualities: he’s a decent chap, popular, intelligent, hard working, a private reticent man; Patrick’s defence also leans heavily on his past good character and personal relationships. He is also a hard worker.

The main difference between the two protagonists is that Meursault is simply the personification of existentialism whereas Patrick is a more believable character. To me anyway. Perhaps if I lived in Algiers I might find Patrick odd but I found I could relate to him more. He also doesn’t live only in the moment like Meursault, not all the time anyway.

The other important difference would appear to be that Meursault is definitely a murderer since he shoots and kills an Arab that had been involved in an earlier assault on him and then fires four shots into the cadaver. Nevertheless he still maintains that it was all to do with the sun in his eyes:

To my mind it was just an accident, or a stroke of bad luck, if you prefer. And a thing like that takes you off your guard.[3]

Although that sounds like an excuse what we need to bear in mind is that earlier he had stopped Raymond from killing the Arab in cold blood. Patrick’s definitely sounds more like accidental manslaughter but the fact is that both men had been drinking at the time of the assaults and so even their own testimonies are suspicious. Patrick’s ‘explanation’ isn’t any more plausible than Meursault’s:

My mind played hardly any part but my body acted and, as far as the law is concerned, my body may as well be all that I am.

Patrick has found it difficult to make friends with Welkin. Welkin is brash. He drinks too much, is loud, pushy (bordering on nasty) and has problems respecting other peoples’ personal space; he barges into Patrick’s room, hangs all over his girlfriends and flirts with Bridget, too, which winds Patrick up. It’s just one of the many ways he chooses to rub Patrick up the wrong way. I’m sure Welkin considers it teasing and thinks that Patrick – “Par-trick” as he insists in calling him – shouldn’t take himself so seriously but it’s really a form of bullying.

After a difficult, alcohol-fuelled evening with Bridget and Welkin Patrick goes up to his room wound up to high doh:

I get down to the floor and do twenty push-ups and thirty sit-ups and, from the floor near my bed, I can see my toolkit’s been moved, pushed too far back. It’s not in the place I always leave it.

I pull it out from under the bed and check the contents and there’s no doubt the tools have been tampered with.

Someone’s been in here rummaging.

I take everything out to be sure, line up the pieces on the floor: SF and AF spanners, sealing pliers, grease gun and extension bars, the whole lot.

Ball Peen The ball peen hammer’s gone.

I go to the desk and sit and think about what I’ve to do and it doesn’t take me long to know.

I’ve got to go next door and wake him and ask why he’s moved my toolbox and taken the hammer.

Patrick goes next door and tries to wake him but Welkin’s too drunk. He goes back to him room, realises he is suddenly thirsty, drinks two glasses of water then kneels down and restacks his toolkit. Once everything’s back, “everything but the ball peen hammer” he takes the adjustable wrench and goes back into the room next door, tries again to wake him by shaking him but he doesn’t stir:

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

I stand back and move the wrench from my right hand to my left, feel the heft of the handle, switch again, move it again.

His body shudders, his legs kick, right leg followed by left, then both legs at once, as though he’s struggling to get out from under the weight of the blankets. His eyes are open, staring out, but there’s no sign of pain. Two brief convulsions, then nothing.

He’s stopped moving.

I go back to my room, put the wrench in the sink, and close the window so as not to be woken by noise from the street.

I sleep

In the morning Bridget discovers the dead body and tries to get Patrick to go and check him. Instead he takes his key from the hook and walks out the front door. At this point he believes he’s killed Welkin, accidentally, but he still thinks he’s the culprit. He wanders along the promenade then phones his parents only to have his father put the phone down on him before he can tell his story; he checks his money and thinks he might have enough to run away or perhaps he could book into the motel across from the station to give him time to clear his mind. Too late, a police car draws up:

‘Are you Patrick?’


There’ll be no going back.

Welkin’s dead.

‘Get in.’

I get in.

And so the process that leads to his trial begins. The thing is, as I’ve pointed out, although Patrick shares much in common with Meursault, Patrick is not Meursault.

This single act of violence doesn’t come out of nowhere it should be stressed. His fiancée, Sarah, has just dumped him and at one point he imagines throwing her down stairs:

I wanted 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.

and when his mother visits him:

I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my toolkit. I put the pillow on the floor and I put a towel over it and bash good and hard. And I count: one fucking stupid bitch, two fucking stupid bitch, three fucking stupid bitch, four fucking stupid bitch.

Clearly it’s a fine line that divides what we imagine we’d like to do and what we actually allow ourselves to do.

The second parts of both books have to do with justice, consequences and responsibility. They also address meaning. This is How is not so much a rewrite of The Outsider as an updating, a reconsideration in a more modern setting, albeit one only about thirty years on from the latter. Patrick is not facing the death sentence. His belief – or disbelief – in God is not an issue. The humanity of the victim and inhumanity of murdering another human being are things of which he is acutely aware. So they are quite different.

My gut feeling was that the setting is Lancashire or thereabouts even though there’s no use of dialect that I could spot. As it happens one of the prisons Hyland visited Strangeways_Prison in doing research for her book was Strangeways in Manchester so I’m in the right ballpark. The exact year is not given either but there are clues; the 1966 World Cup win is a recent memory and From Russia with Love (which was released in 1963) has just been showing in cinemas. In an interview she confirms that she “set the book pre-1970 so that the prison could be a more brutal place; I could have a bucket in the cell rather than a toilet.”[4] Slopping out only ended in Barlinnie in 2004 and as far as I’m aware the practice is still prevalent in Polmont, Perth, Edinburgh and Peterhead prisons[5] so she could have set it later but it really doesn’t matter. It’s not a book that leans heavily on a certain period.

Purists may well be able to pick fault with some of the finer details in the book. She admits she was “aiming for dramatic power"[6] and didn’t want to be tied down to the letter of the law. Having watched most courtroom dramas, from Perry Mason on, I have no problem with things being smoothed out to help the narrative flow. We get the idea. And the same goes for what happens in the prison. As she says:

The word “chow,’’ for example, would never pass the lips of an English prisoner; it’s completely bogus, but it has a ring to it, a music, and awfulness.

I’m not sure I necessarily agree. I remember my wife telling me about someone in one of Jeanette Winterson’s book eating Polo Mints in America when it should have been Life Savers. That minor flaw really rankled her. I’m sure plenty of other people would never have even noticed but then she’s an American; she grew up with Life Savers.

I mentioned earlier that This is How is 376 pages long. A huge amount of that is dialogue, so it fairly skips along. A lot of the dialogue is fairly mundane, day-to-day stuff but the background to this novel is not what you’d call exciting. There are no car chases; nothing blows up. There’s a lot of soul searching, many questions about the nature of existence, but not so many answers. At least not answers to the questions he’s asking. “There are no reasons for unreasonable things.” That’s something I wrote in one of my own novels. It would have been a good thing for someone to say to Patrick because he keeps looking for a reason, an explanation; he wants to make sense out of a senseless act. And he can’t. What he does find in prison though is a kind of happiness that had managed to avoid him when he was free:

I'm sometimes happier in here than I was out there ... life's shrinking to a size that suits me more.

Outside intimacy was something that preoccupied Patrick’s thoughts, primarily the notion of sexual intimacy (he’s only twenty-three), but inside prison he can’t walk out on conversations as easily as we see him do in the first section of the book. He grows up.

Patrick doesn’t die at the end of the book but he makes a similar journey towards self-discovery to that of Meursault. I liked Hyland’s conclusion. She, in a very believable way, manages to bring Patrick to face that life-altering moment again, to kill or not to kill, and to make an informed decision. It’s not exactly a second chance. He doesn’t get to undo what he’s done but he does get the opportunity to at least feel what it would have been like to make a different decision.

I mentioned at the start that I was a little disappointed when I’d finished this book and it’s true, I was. Perhaps because like many people, the narrator included, I focused too much on the crime; the crime is purely the catalyst, a few moments in this guy’s life: the book is about the guy and no one should be defined by a single act.

If I was asked for a single word to describe the book the one that jumps to my mind is ‘claustrophobic’ and this doesn’t only apply to the obvious claustrophobia that one would experience in a prison cell. The scenes set outside feel just the same. And from what I’ve read of her other books this is the one word that might be used in years to come to describe her entire output. The word appears in reviews of every one of her three books to date. Time will tell. Talking about her previous novel she had this to say:

Because of the kind of territory I write in, it’s appropriate. I’m writing about claustrophobic, within four-walls situations, that could almost take place on stage. Dramatic, prose approaching drama - if that makes sense. It’s not epic writing, that depends upon sweeps of time, chronicling place and detailing nuances of history and that kind of thing.[7]

and in an interview with Nadine O’Regan she is disconcertingly honest about her own past:

She spoke intensely about her circumstances growing up in Ballymun, Tallaght, Melbourne and Sydney, her crippled mother and her criminal, alcoholic father.

She told me about the day, aged 12, when she tried to kill her father. Having hatched several plans, one morning, when he was sitting drunk in his pyjamas at the kitchen table, Hyland seized her opportunity. ‘‘I went out to the shed and brought in a hammer,” she said. ‘‘I was about to put him out of his misery when my mum intervened.”

Later in life, Hyland’s father showed her the scars on his body from where she had attacked him over the years. ‘‘It occurred to me,” Hyland wrote in an essay about her life, ‘‘that, although he has spent plenty of time in prison for violent crimes, I was the most violent member of the family, the one prepared to kill.”[8]

This knowledge of course adds a whole other layer to the book. I would encourage you to read the whole interview if you have the time.

This is How has not received universal praise. I can see why. It’s an uncomfortable read, not completely without humour, but what humour there is is dark and may not be to everyone’s tastes. It is told in an uncomplicated, bare fashion and some people won’t care for that either. It’s not even a book I could say I liked very much but it made me think . . . and I like thinking.


M J Hyland Maria Joan Hyland was born in London to Irish parents in 1968 and spent her early childhood in Dublin. After finishing school she worked briefly in film and television before deciding to study English and law at the University of Melbourne, Australia. After graduating she worked as a lawyer for about six years. Hyland is non-committal about her nationality; she has said “I might live in Manhattan or Edinburgh or Cardiff, I think of myself as without nationality.”[9]

Her first novel, How the Light Gets In (2003) was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Age Book of the Year and also took third place in the Barnes & Noble, Discover Great New Writers Award. How the Light Gets In was also joint winner of the Best Young Australian Novelist Award.

Carry Me Down (2006), her second novel, was winner of both the Encore Prize (2007) and the Hawthornden Prize (2007) and was also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize (2006). Hyland lives in Manchester, England, where she teaches in the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University.



[1] Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.

[2] Lisa Glass, Interview with M J Hyland, Vulpes Libres, 23rd October 2009

[3] Albert Camus, The Outsider, (Penguin Modern Classics), p.93

[4] Anna Mundow, ‘Locked up inside the mind of a killer’, The Boston Globe, 9th August 2009

[5] Slopping out ends at Barlinnie, BBC News, 5th August 2004

[6] Anna Mundow, ‘Locked up inside the mind of a killer’, The Boston Globe, 9th August 2009

[7] Andrew Lawless, Carry me down - M.J. Hyland in interview, Three Monkeys Online, May 2007

[8] Nadine O’Regan, M J Hyland Interview, Tut. Sulk. Tut., 26th July 2009

[9] Sydney Morning Herald, 19-20 July 2003 quoted in Austlit News October/November 2006


Peter said...

I liked the complicated reactions you had to this book. I don't mind being left with questions if the questions are creative ones. I don't mind feeling uncomfortable if the feeling is genuine. Hmm.

Great review, by the way.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s a good way of describing how I reacted to this book, Peter. To be fair there are very few instances where I am willing to unreservedly recommend a book because I can always see how some people might not care of it. What I find especially interesting is where a book polarises opinions, like The Road which really falls into the love-it-or-loathe it category. I’ve just reviewed a book where two people actually threw away their copies in case someone else got their hands on them. They didn’t want to be held responsible for anyone being as upset as they had been. When I read stuff like that I almost have to read the book to see what would make someone react in such an extreme way. I think This is How will do perfectly well without any help from me, it’ll sell loads of copies, make the girl lots of money and I’m pleased for her. It kept me fully occupied for a few days and made me think and that’s the least I expect from any book; anything else is gravy.

Art Durkee said...

Well, I'm not sure that Camus NEEDED updating, but okay. L'Etranger is not his best writing, not nearly his best novel or story, although it's the one everyone is made to read in school, largely because it's a philosophical novel about existentialism. At least in Camus we do get told WHY as well as how.

I certainly like, as you do, books that make me think. This doesn't sound too pleasant, though. I pay attention lately to what books make me think about, because I don't really need to be injecting myself with unnecessary dark and dour thinking right now. (As you know why, as well as how.)

Kass said...

Hmmm. Go ahead, put the loaded rifle on the stage. Make us wonder until we fire the author.

Rachel Fenton said...

Kass made me forget what I was going to say!

I'm not sure I would have gravitated towards this in any bookstore but I find, after reading your reviews,my curiosity gets a shot of someting that has me googling away ro another ten minutes before I give my own verdict on to read or not to read.

Not very eloquently put but I'm all worded out this week.

I really like how you get behind the text and you are fair to the words and to the readers and don't fluff the author's pillow. Great review.

Jim Murdoch said...

No, I tend to agree with you, Art, but I have to say I’m curious now about The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick but it’ll have to wait. My to-read shelf has now started to leak books onto the shelf above. I need to knuckle down and make some space. I miss my first wife at times like this. I used to get books out of the library I didn’t have time to read, she’d read them and then summarise them for me. And she could do a book a day.

Very witty, Kass. And stop confusing Rachel.

And, Rachel, there I told off Kass for you. The problem I find with bookstores is overkill. There’s always too much on offer and so it’s the catchy titles and pretty covers that draw us in. This is not a bad title but it’s not exciting and the cover is nothing special although I think I would have picked it up on both counts.

You are right too. This particular book may not be for you but the author might be. I’ve just finished a very hard book by an Austrian author and now I’ve finished it I realise that this is the last book of his I should have read. In doing my research the other titles seem far more accessible. But that’s how it goes sometimes. I bought the book based on reviews I’d read that piqued my interest. The trouble with them is that most books can be made to sound intriguing if you only write two or three hundred words about them. Hopefully when you read my thoughts you’ll see the book’s pros and cons and be able to make a more informed decision. And you may still hate it.

Elisabeth said...

I took a particular interest in this book, Jim because many years ago when I was trying to write my autobiography of my childhood, which in those days I tried to present as fiction, I spent some time with Maria Hyland as she was then known.

I had met her when she took a one off short story class here in Melbourne and I was so taken by her ideas about writing that I approached her to mentor me for a time.

She read several pieces of my writing and for a fee she helped me to think on ways I might improve them.

She read the piece I wrote about my father baptizing the baby that died when I was still very young. I shall never forget her suggestion then.

I told her about the fact of my many siblings and our Catholic names and how each of us is named after a certain saint and how our various namesakes seem to represent different aspects of our personalities.

We met once for coffee and although I told MJH a great deal about my life, as I'm prone to do in such circumstances, she was far more circumspect.

The thing that stays with me most of all is how excited she became when I described my childhood bedroom, which I shared with my sisters. She could imagine, she said, above each of our beds a portrait of the saints after whom we were each named.

t was then I realized MJH is a fiction writer first and foremost.

I have not yet read this her latest book, but I loved 'Carry me Down'.

MJH is a sensitive and dark writer. She is a serious and sensitive woman. On the cusp of her fame in 2006, she has a piece about her time in Larundel psychiatric hospital as a very young woman, which features in the same magazine Meanjin in which I have an essay about my analytic experience. I admire her honesty and the vigor with which she writes.

I'm glad you've reviewed this book, Jim. I like the sound if it, too. MJH's writing is not for the feint hearted.

She's a force to be reckoned with. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s all very interesting, Lis. The word I would tend to associate with her, having read what I have, is ‘sincere’. It’s obvious that she takes her writing seriously. And, as I said at the very end of the article, despite any qualms or niggles I might have had – I’m a writer, I want to edit everything – the book still left me thinking. That has to be the minimum requirement for me as a writer. I’m happy if someone reads and enjoys my stuff but I’m so much happier when I learn that what I’ve written has affected them even if they can’t articulate it. I gave some poems to a woman once and when she gave them back to me, with very little comment, she had held one back and asked if she could keep it. It had touched something in her that none of the others had; she had made it her own. That is success.

Where Hyland was on a hiding to nothing is that she has taken a book that so many of us have made our own and done stuff to it. I know it’s nothing as crass as that but as soon as I started to see the parallels between The Outsider and her book the more her book was up against the wall without a paddle. I would certainly read her again though.

Steerforth said...

That's a far more thoughtful review than I've read in the press and you make a very strong case. However, I actually like the fact that there's no "Why?". It makes Patrick's story all the more tragic, because he feels so detached from the crime and doesn't understand how it happened.

"This is How" doesn't console us with explanations. What's so unsettling is the ease with which a naive young man can cross the line from being a normal person to become a murderer, without even realising that they've crossed a line.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Steerforth, I put quite a bit of time into this one. This is certainly a book that leaves you with a sense of unease: these are all the facts you’re going to get; these are all the facts there are. It’s human to fill in the blanks. We look at the stars and the clouds and see patterns. We need to make sense out of things and it’s frustrating being deprived that but that’s life. As I wrote myself once, “There are no reasons for unreasonable things.”

When I realised the connection with The Outsider I looked out my old copy and re read all the relevant sections and I found myself feeling the same: there must be some more words around here, this can’t be everything, maybe I’ve turned two pages and there’s a whole chunk that explains it all. But no.

Where we all struggle here is with the fact that the crime is murder, the most extreme case she could've picked. It might have been better had the man survived perhaps in a coma so that the core argument is explored and yet the comparison with Camus isn't quite so obvious. I don't know.

Premeditation we understand. Bad people think about a crime, plan it and see it through. People like you and I commit crimes (trivial ones by comparison) all the time (5 mph over the speed limit, that kind of thing) without thinking about it. That's what's interesting here, not that it's a murder, but the ease with which we can commit a criminal act.

Like I said, the book made me think. And I'm still thinking.

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