This is How

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This is How By M.J. HylandAfter his fiancée breaks off their engagement, Patrick Oxtoby, a quiet young man in his mid twenties, packs a bag and leaves his family to go and live in a boarding house by the sea. His employer helps him find a new job and Patrick is trying to feel hopeful about the future but it doesn’t help that he’s an introverted young man who finds it difficult to communicate his true feelings. He isn’t really to his fellow lodgers, Ian and Shaun, both from wealthy backgrounds and both carousing womanisers.  The landlady, Bridget, tries to encourage Patrick to become friends with the others but, quite the opposite, their brash and arrogant behaviour only irritates Patrick.  Things should be looking up for Patrick with a new job that brings him praise and a blossoming friendship with Georgia, a waitress in a local cafe but Patrick commits a shocking act of violence, one that changes his life forever.

Rarely does a novel grip me with the intensity of “This is how”. From the very first page it’s clear that Patrick is a complex and fascinating character. It certainly couldn’t be said that he’s likeable; moody, often rude and unable to tolerate the failings of others, Patrick does little to endear himself to his audience, yet, despite these flaws in his character and the terrible crime he commits, it’s impossible not to root for him and hope that things won’t turn out as they almost certainly will. To have presented the story entirely as a first person narrative using such a dysfunctional character shows great courage and skill on the part of the author.

Patrick reminded me a great deal of the character of Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’s “The Collector”: there is a similarity in the way the narrative is calm and relaxed yet gradually gives the reader a sense of foreboding, that something bad is going to happen.  It’s not just that Patrick has problems engaging with others, even in narration he still can’t really verbalise his true feelings.

That Patrick will do something quite shocking comes as no surprise, (after all it’s there to see in the blurb before you even open the cover) but Patrick’s uncomfortable and unsettling narrative is such that this could come at any moment.  This reader’s heart was pounding on several occasions when it looked like the big event was about to happen.  What happens to Patrick after the incident is also predictable but even here there were twists and turns that I found immensely satisfying.

“The fact that I often forgot I was reading a piece of fiction must pay testament to the excellent writing…”

The story is set sometime in the early to mid sixties though this is not immediately apparent and clues only gradually reveal this.  The era of the “kitchen sink drama” and the “angry young man” is evoked with great skill though the story could take place at any time.  The sense of place, too, is conveyed skilfully and I felt myself transported to rainy days at the seaside, pounding the pavements or sitting in bus shelters and staring out to sea, trying to keep warm until the pubs open.

The supporting characters are drawn as well as one might expect given that we only have Patrick’s accounts of them.  That said, Patrick doesn’t appear to have the guile to skew his portraits of others and we have to assume that what he says is pretty close to the mark. Patrick is prone to lying, usually when the truth is perfectly acceptable, and has a habit of giving monosyllabic answers aloud then answering the question more fully in his head. This would have worked better if the text had been presented differently as it was sometimes difficult to recognise which lines he was saying aloud and which were thoughts.

The fact that I often forgot I was reading a piece of fiction must pay testament to the excellent writing; without wishing to sound patronising or to denigrate the skills of female writers everywhere, there is, to me, something remarkable that the write is a female because Patrick’s voice just seems so real. This is echoed in the second half of the book in which the men that Patrick meets in prison are often small character sketches yet are perfectly defined in a matter of paragraphs.

What readers may find frustrating is that “This is How” does not answer some of the questions that will inevitably be thrown up from the narrative. Rather than trying to make a statement, I felt that the author is merely telling a tale. You can, of course, take what you want from the novel; it’s about what happens when you brood and don’t appreciate what you have, or what happens when you don’t follow your own dreams, or even how difficult it can be for young men to admit they have problems. My own take is quite simple: “This is How” tells the story of what happens when one young man makes a grave mistake.

A thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking read; recommended without reservation.

This is How by MJ Hyland, 320 pages, published by Canongate Books, April 2010
Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a free review copy to us.


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This is How
by MJ Hyland

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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