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A Contradictory Examination: This is How by MJ Hyland

In her novel This is How, MJ Hyland describes the struggle of a seemingly innocuous middle class young man trying to find his place in the world. Patrick Oxtoby wants to escape the pain of heartbreak and a stifling family, but he quickly learns that there is no running away from things - they will always find their way back to you. He wants to connect to others in a meaningful way, but finds it frustratingly impossible to do so.

Okay, so it all sounds like a terribly, self-indulgently, soporifically typical search for identity. But in this case, This is How will dump you on unexpected, shocking ground.

Hyland is originally from Melbourne but has decamped to Manchester (the mind is boggling). She has written two other books, all of which have been highly celebrated and have won multiple awards (I’m only a little jealous). This is How is no different – in fact, it’s not unreasonable go so far as to call it masterful fiction. It is particularly interesting that Hyland lives in Manchester, a city known for its greyness. The bleak environment has surely impacted on the author’s psyche.

At the beginning of the novel, the tone is almost monochromatic. Patrick seems nice enough. There are no hideous secrets, no dreadful past. He’s just a guy. And yet a sense of unease permeates every word, every syllable. As his father says, Patrick was born ‘without the knack for happiness.’ The sheer misery of this observation, from a man’s father, no less, is undeniably telling. You can sense the approaching disaster like grit between your toes; a creeping, agonising irritation. The ability to create that tension without any overt cause-and-effect is exactly why masterful is the best way to describe it.

The second half throws Patrick into an opposing universe, and the reader goes along with him. Were it not for his over-arching presence, you could almost mistake it for a different book. In part two, there is an attempt to understand; an unrealised plea to face reality. The price of consequence, horror at the turn of events and disgust at Patrick’s self-delusion compete with a lingering sensitivity to his confusion. Such human contradictions are reflected in every character who crosses Patrick’s path, from the apparently loving mother to the betrayed yet forgiving victims.

Much has been said by critics about the inconsistency between what goes on in Patrick’s head and his words and actions. He is a highly intelligent person, so he knows what is expected of a man. He is not ignorant of that which he lacks. Patrick wants to belong yet is incapable of doing so. Intellectually, he knows this. A man’s desire and a man’s ability are not always in sync.

Ambiguity abounds in this novel, particularly surrounding sexuality. Set in the 1960’s, the unspoken and unexamined thoughts and events which touch on the integral part of a man’s psyche and self add another layer of density which further builds on the uncertainty that pervades the story.

There is no attempt to resolve or pass judgement. Nothing is handed to us on a platter. The author implies she’s going to tell us “This is How” but in fact, she leaves us to make our own conclusion. Or perhaps more accurately, she does tell us how but leaves it to the reader to decide what that means.
Oh, ambiguity.

Dark Flower by Luis Gutierrez


words: Kristen Hodges

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