Saturday, September 17, 2011

This is How by M.J. Hyland (2009)

M.J. Hyland was born in London in 1968, studied Law and English at the University of Melbourne and she is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Manchester.

The book "This is How" tells the story of Patrick Oxtoby, a young man who is going through a very difficult time in his life. His girlfriend, who he thought he would marry, has broken off their engagement, and he decides to move away from his home town to get away from the discomfort and shame he feels.

Patrick has never felt easy around other people, he has never felt confident that others really like him, and he has always had a hard time interacting with others, including his own mother, father and older brother. Throughout the book I felt that Patrick was in some way autistic. He was very intelligent as a child and got into university but simply couldn't settle into life there, so he came back home after failing his first year and took a mechanics course, something he really loved to do and was good at, in spite of the fact that his family is very disapproving of this choice. He ended up getting a job at a local garage where the customers and his boss really appreciated him.

But because of the break up of his relationship, he decides to move to a seaside town, get a room in a boarding house and work at a different garage. His boss is sorry to see him go, but helps him find a new job. So at the beginning of the novel we see Patrick arriving at the boarding house, where his discomfort with other people becomes immediately clear in his first moments with his landlady Brigit, and then later with the two other men who are boarders at the house.

Patrick tries to fit in and tries to make a go of his new life, but things simply don't seem to go his way. His mother shows up for a desastrous and embarasssing visit, the two other boarders seem to look down on and ridicule him, his new boss turns out not wanting him there full time, and his attempts to date a local cafe waitress, Georgia, don't work out the way he hopes. Frustration builds up inside of Patrick, something he attempts to deal with through drinking binges, and he ends up doing something violent and irreversible which lands him, in the second half of the book, in prison.

Physically frail and mentally unstable as Patrick is, as a reader one is terribly apprehensive about him being funneled into the penal systerm, but is just as powerless as Patrick is to stop the flow of events. Throughout his initial nights in jail, through his trial and later imprisonment, it is difficult to imagine how he is to survive in the hostile environment. His family has completely dropped him, and his father only comes to visit him once before informing Patrick that they are moving very far away. He is an easy target for guards and fellow inmates alike, although he does find a few individuals in prison who seem to want to help him, they often expect something in return.

This is a very grim book, but in the end, it seems that Patrick finally finds a small shred of hope with his new life in prison: "I'm sometimes happier in here than I was out there. I'm under no pressure to be better in here and life's shrinking to a size that suits me more."

Wow. I was totally struck by that statement. And having gotten to know Patrick in the previous 338 pages I could totally understand that, while prison life may be brutal and dehumanizing and violent and filthy, that for some people, it might well be the size of life that fits them better than the one that was possible for them in the outside world. It also got me to thinking that we all have a certain size life that suits us best. Some, like the Madonnas and Lady Gagas of this world, are suited to a life that is huge, loud, crazy and constantly moving; while others of us, perhaps nuns or monks, those who still choose a cloistered life, are more fit for a much smaller, quieter, well contained life. It got me to thinking, what size life am I best suited to, and more importantly, does my current life reflect that? Food for thought - and this is an excellent book.

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