One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. – Anton Chekov
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.” 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 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" 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.
and in an interview with Nadine O’Regan she is disconcertingly honest about her own past:
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
 Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.
 Albert Camus, The Outsider, (Penguin Modern Classics), p.93