Saturday, October 14, 2006

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland

It is January, a dark Sunday in winter, and I sit with my mother and father at the kitchen table. My father sits with his back to the table, his feet pressed against the wall, a book in his lap. My mother sits to my right and her book rests in the table. I sit close to her, and my chair, which faces the window, is near the heat of the range.
There is a pot of hot tea in the middle of the table and we each have a cup and a plate. There are ham and turkey sandwiches on the plates and, if we want more to eat or drink, there is plenty. The pantry is full.

From time to time we stop reading to talk. It is a good mood, as though we are one person reading one book - not three people apart and alone.
So starts MJ Hyland's latest novel, featuring one John Egan as its narrator. When I first read these lines, I was a little confused, as I knew the author to live in Melbourne, yet here she is with January being mid-winter. The explanation comes soon enough: the novel is set in Ireland, in Gorey (North Wexford). As might be expected from the extract I quote, it is a very domestic novel, but domestic life here is far from cosy. The first note of discomfort is soon struck, when John's mum takes him aside and tells him off for staring at her: he is 11 and thus just entering puberty and curiously tall for his age. Throughout the novel, there is a hint of some sort of sexual charge between mother and son - something she seems far more aware of than he is:
"You were staring at me, John. You shouldn't stare like that."
"Why can't I look at you?"
Because you're eleven now. You're not a baby any more."
I am distracted by the cries of our cat, Crito, who is locked in the cupboard under the stairs with her new kittens. I want to go to her. But my mother presses harder.
His father at first seems like a very cool dad, in the way that he knows interesting things and pays a lot of attention to John; there is a lot of laughter in the earlier pages. This impression gradually unravels. He has not worked for several years, ostensibly because he is a student: the reality is that he is lazy and undisciplined, and reads the kinds of books we might expect serial killers to - such as Phrenology and the Criminal Cranium. As the novel progresses, what we don't really know is whether he is getting worse, or whether John becomes aware of more details of his father: his gambling, his visits to prostitutes, his violence, his sense of entitlement to his mother's assets. I tend to think it is the former, because their life takes a turn for the worse when they have to move into a horrible council flat in Dublin, and mum smiles less and less by the day.

John is a bit of a misfit: he can normally tough it out, but not always.
As his mood alters, so too does the doll stuck up a tree he passes by on his way too and from school. He is obsessed with getting into the Guinness Book of Records: an obsession which gets him into no little trouble, as he can't really think of anything to do until the day he tries to see how long he can avoid going to the bathroom, with embarrassing consequences in school. His life has already been one of isolation; now he loses his one and only friend. Soon afterwards a new kid turns up at school, Kate, who is unrelieving in her horribleness to John: I did find this part of the novel just a little lacking in nuance. John's other claim to fame is that he has some special ability to detect when people are not telling the truth, but insufficient wisdom to know when to keep his mouth shut or that people are quite naturally duplicitous: he feels a sense of wrongness when he detects a lie.

I liked John: I wish the world was more accomodating for young fellows like him, because you just know he's going to have his idealism and his thirst for knowing things knocked out of him. His parents don't quite know what to do with him, and try to get doctors to cure him when really, there is nothing wrong with apart from being a bit different. Only one of his teachers, the really rather splendid Mr Roche who has some great teaching methods, seems to get him but he is only a short-lived influence in John's life. I think that instead of curing, all that John needed was some encouragement or affirmation; the tragedy is that there won't be any. He knows it too, I'm sure, even if he can't quite articulate that understanding. There is one point in the novel, towards the end, when he engages in one violent act, so bad that the Social Services put him in a home. One commentator has said that this signifies his "desperation", but I think when read in context, it is more about his desire to back to when life was peaceful and innocent. In a way, it works, although you're left wondering how long things will stay stitched together after coming apart so badly.

It is funny, as I was reading this book, about a month ago now, it didn't strike me as a very serious piece of writing, and not at all Booker material. Re-reading it, I see more to it and empathise more deeply with John. That probably makes me a freak, as most people writing about him say that he is one.

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Blogger Meg said...

Hi Barry, thanks for stopping by my blog, it's good to see your thorough review of Carry Me Down. I agree with your comment about the self-enclosed world for John. I still would have liked a bit more context for the outside world, not necessarily expressed through John's character or even his parents. Lots of readers who come from countries where divorce is legal and quite common maybe miss out on the impact of events in Ballymun (trying not to be a spoiler here...)
And that is very interesting that it was going to be set in Sydney - I hadn't heard that.

12:10 PM  

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