This Is How by M J Hyland

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This Is How by M J Hyland

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A compelling and unsettling story about a troubled young man who commits an act of violence and is left to face the consequences, exploring his guilt and remorse. With hints of such greats as Pinter, Kafka and Camus, this is a dark and sparse story about a fragile outsider that doesn't let go.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1847673831

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Things weren't going too badly for Patrick Oxtoby. He's intelligent and did well at school. Then his Gran died. He started getting pains in his shoulder and things rapidly went downhill from there. He drops out of university to become a mechanic. By the time we meet him as a 23-year-old, he's become a loner who cannot communicate his feelings and who cannot seem to fit himself into society. Now his fiancee has left him (and you can see her point) and he finds himself in a seaside boarding house in an unnamed English town, hoping to start a new life. Then, one night he commits an act of violence (you can see it coming) and his life goes from bad to awful.

It takes a brave writer to write in the first person from the point of view of such a dysfunctional character - and a very talented one to elicit the reader's sympathy. He's almost wholly unlikeable, and yet you almost want him to get away with it. At times he will frustrate you (falling asleep at your own trial is not a good look Patrick!), but he was a broken man long before the events in this book.

This is Maria Hyland's third novel. Both her previous novels have been nominated for awards and her second 'Carry Me Down' was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. 'This is How' has already been long list nominated for the Orange Prize.

It's an uncomfortable and unsettling read, but nevertheless a very good one. I was put in mind of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love while reading it. There's a lot of dialogue in the book and it crackles with an almost Pinteresque tension. Reflecting his own mind, Oxtoby's voice is staccato and awkward and his imagination runs away with him. Frequently in company he complains that he cannot get back in to the conversation. As the story develops, his mental imprisonment turns to physical incarceration. There are hints of Kafka, Camus, Brendan Behan and Nietzsche in her writing and it's a powerful and evocative mix.

The book is expertly paced and, because of the nature of the narrative voice, it frequently gets straight to the point and touches on emotional nerves. The writing is tight and sparse and no words are wasted. It's a very distinctive style and is highly effective. As Oxtoby moves to guilt and remorse for his actions, the reader is carried along.

So far, so good then.

Put simply, you should read this book. However, for reasons I'm about to explain, I cannot give it any more than four stars. Now, I'm only going to explain this if you promise to read the book anyway. Do we have a deal? OK, then.

What lets this book down in my view is the apparently weak editing hand that has been applied, and that's such a shame. I'm not normally too concerned by anachronisms and inconsistencies, preferring to give the author artistic licence, but here there are just too many and they are too obvious to miss and I found it affecting my enjoyment of the book.

For example, he sees two youths smoking on a Sunday. No mention of them on the Monday and then on the Tuesday he sees them in the pub and recognizes them as the ones he saw 'yesterday'. The time period of the book is not specific but we learn a 1966 car is a few years old - and certainly late 1960s fits with the fashion described. Then, he claims he once found a skateboard when he was a child. Really? Skateboards hit the UK in the late 1970s as far as I remember (although I also remember being told that 'Santa had run out of them', but that's another story!). Then he is talking about the latest James Bond movie as From Russia With Love - released in 1963 so there would have been at least two others by 1966 and another in 1967 that would have been in the cinema - even in a seaside town. There's mention of kids being ID-ed in clubs. Really? In the 1960s?

So none of them are particularly heinous errors and perhaps you will think I'm being too picky, but they add up (and these are just a few of them) and kind of broke the spell for me. I found myself doubting the settings and, by unfair association, doubting the story. I still loved the book though.

The Bookbag would like to thank the kind folk at Canongate for inviting us to review this book.

As I have suggested in terms of books that hold you in their uncomfortable grip, then Ian McEwan's Enduring Love is one of my favourite books and highly recommended if you liked 'This is How'. And why not check out some of the other books in this year's Orange Prize long list, such as Savage Lands by Clare Clark or Small Wars by Sadie Jones.

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Nora Brown said:


I've just read This Is How and was glad to read your review as it expressed some of my difficulties with the book. I found it a gripping read at first and then all the anachronisms and the inconsistencies really got to me and destroyed my enjoyment.

Does anyone out there understand why editors do not pull authors up about this? I gave up half way through A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book for the same reason. I emailed Byatt's publishers about it and didn't even get the courtesy of a reply.

I'm glad that a few online reviewers do actually mention these mistakes as most newspaper reviews seem to just praise any established author to the skies. I doubt if newpaper reviewers actually read the books with the attention "ordinary" readers do.