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Tuesday, 4 August 2009

'a tainted wether of the flock'


This Is How
by M J Hyland


Three weeks ago my fiancée Sarah was standing at the top of the stairs when she said, 'I can't marry you, it's over,' and when she was halfway down, I called out her name, but she didn't stop, didn't so much as look at me, just said, 'Please don't follow 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 door I said, 'Okay, then,' and, 'Goodbye, then.'
After wards I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed her 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.' It was something I'd never say, not like anything I've ever said. I've never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much.


Meet Patrick Oxtoby, the latest central figure from M J Hyland, who won plaudits for her last novel, the Booker shortlisted Carry Me Down. At the center of that novel was a young boy (John Egan) in a man's body who learned to his cost the true consequences of his actions. A similar theme prevails in her latest where Patrick is propelled to a seaside boarding house after the end of his relationship, and struggles to find an outlet for his emotions until the pressure builds to a point of release. Written in a similarly pared back style Hyland's approach seems to be to build a convincing psychological portrait by slowly revealing details unencumbered by florid description or emotion. Both John and Patrick seem to be living at one remove from the world they live in. Patrick is well aware that the reason his fiancee has left him is because he doesn't know how to express his emotions but his honest reaction to that - 'The thing is I didn't have that many', gives you an idea of his stunted emotional development.

What he does seem to build up to are vents of emotion. As a student he is reduced to tears whilst watching The Merchant of Venice, totally unprepared for the sobs that wrack his body as an actor recites.

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.

It is only later that he learns that a wether is a castrated male sheep, a piece of symbolism which needs little elaboration.

What this leads up to is a single moment of violence which will have the direst consequences for Patrick.

I did the thing regarded by the law as the worst of things and what I did adds up to no more than the act of raising and lowering a hand. My mind played hardly any part, but my body acted and, as far as the law's concerned, my body might as well be all I am.

Patrick's constant defence that he didn't mean to kill is no real defence at all and just as a courtroom might struggle to understand his actions I found myself as a reader failing to get much further into his mind. After enjoying Carry Me Down I failed to finish Hyland' first novel How the Light Gets In but I can detect in her progression, a stripping away of the extraneous, an aim to provide the barest of essentials so that the reader can slowly discover the complexity underneath. Unfortunately for me this time it seemed to take a long time to reveal not much more than a boy in need of a hug.



2 comments:

John Self 5 August 2009 10:17  

Yep, I got a copy of this from Canongate and turned to it with some enthusiasm - I'd never read her earlier books but had heard such praise of them that this seemed an exciting prospect.

I gave up on page 80 or so. Blankness in prose can be used to great effect, but here it just seemed ... blank. I did note in the acknowledgements that Hyland thanks someone who (I'm paraphrasing) rescued the book when she was flailing around not knowing what to do with it. Sounds as though she may have been better to let it lie and start something else.

William Rycroft 5 August 2009 19:28  

I've seen some really positive reviews but I'm afraid it didn't quite work for me. There was a drama on TV with Ben Wishaw called Criminal Justice which I thought brilliantly conveyed the confusion of the justice system and the realities of prison life. It certainly worked all the better for having a central character who was alive in the middle of it all, fighting for a foothold on what was happening to his life, the decisions being made by other people that would affect him from now onwards.

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