THIS IS HOW is MJ Hyland’s third novel and continues
her acute analysis of adolescent—in this case late adolescent— disaffection.
Family dysfunction is less prominent than in her earlier novels; the focus is
almost entirely on the central character’s awkwardness and self-estrangement.
Patrick Oxtoby is not a particularly likeable figure but—such is Hyland’s skill—
we don’t entirely lose sympathy with him. The story is told from his point of
view, setting and other characters are only sketched in, briefly but vividly, but
the narrative doesn’t seem at all one-dimensional. This is partly a matter of style,
which Hyland has in abundance, but more crucially of insight into the realities
and isolation of the adolescent personality which is shown throughout her work.
The style is pared-down, precise and uncompromising in its portrayal of Patrick’s
social and emotional immaturities and his psychological falling apart. The first part
of the novel ends with an act of absurdly gratuitous violence which, as it were,
prepares the way for a curious but convincing ‘rehabilitation’ in part two.
The novel in its narrative, character and setting recalls other modern classics
of alienation, such as The Catcher in the Rye and
further back, Camus’s The Outsider. This Is How, you might say, is a very
good French novel written in English. At times rather grim and unforgiving in
its representation of human behaviour it holds our attention by its perceptiveness
and intelligence and the complex elegance of its narrative structure. It moves
towards its conclusion with a spare eloquence; the shock and pathos of the final
image reminds me of nothing so much as the freeze-frame at the end of Truffaut’s
Les Quatre Cents Coups and demonstrates that Hyland, in addition to an acute
insight into human fallibilities, is also capable, without sentimentality, of a deeper
understanding of human need and love.
How to analyse a text quickly!
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