I can't tell you how many times I've reached for M.J. Hyland's This is How from my bedside TBR stack before finally deciding it was silly to keep putting off starting a book that I so obviously have wanted to read. I bought it last year when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize. I was particularly drawn to last year's list (most of the titles appealed to me), though this is the first book that I've managed to read from it. I really liked it, but in a very strange, uncomfortable sort of way, which I know must sound weird, but there was something a little voyeuristic about reading this book. It was both painful to read but also compelling. And I am sure it's to Hyland's credit as a skilled author that I felt such a sense of compassion towards Patrick despite an act of terrible violence on his part.
Do you know how there are people who exude a sense of insecurity and awkwardness? No matter how hard they try and fit in, it's like a square peg being jammed into a round hole. It won't work, and they'll just look foolish trying. They're not cool or refined and those around them who are more comfortable in their skins and are self-assured smell this shortcoming and often treat it accordingly. That's Patrick Oxtoby. He's twenty-three, a loner but not particularly shy. He's had a year of college but dropped out in favor of becoming a mechanic, and a skilled one at that thanks to a love of and aptitude for fixing things that he discovered as a youth. His family might be disappointed in him, but it's a choice he's not unhappy to have made. Until recently he even had a fiancé, but she's dumped him, so he decides to move to a small seaside community to start fresh.
He moves into a boarding house that is slightly outside his means, but he's already landed a a job in a local garage, so he's optimistic about his future. Bridget, the landlady, is younger and prettier than Patrick expected and almost immediately he feels an attraction towards her. Two other boarders are men of about Patrick's age, both posher and more outgoing with an established friendship, which means Patrick forms a shaky third wheel. What makes for sometimes uncomfortable reading, is that the reader is always inside Patrick's head. Everything he sees, everyone he meets and everything he chooses to do is filtered through Patrick's perception. He seems almost self-confident, or at least willing to try to reach out to others, but he's never on equal footing with the other men, Welkin and Flindall. There's a mockery to their interactions, but it's hard to tell sometimes whether it's really true or whether Patrick is just not seeing their conversations for what they really are.
He's a talented and conscientious mechanic but it's soon apparent that his boss, while trying to be fair to Patrick has also offered a job to a family member, so sends him home early from work or tells him to take a day off when he'd rather earn his pay but in the end incurs hard feelings. Patrick often spends his free time in a neighborhood tea shop where a waitress befriends him, and much like his landlady he feels romantic stirrings for her as well. With each new relationship, however, Patrick almost always starts off on the wrong foot. He's compulsive and paranoid seeing things either for more than they are or assuming the worst, but in any case usually getting it all wrong. And in a moment of anger and misunderstanding he lashes out at one of the other boarders, accidentally killing him.
When explaining why she is breaking up with him, Patrick's fiancé accuses him of being unable to express his emotions and he thinks to himself that he simply doesn't have that many. And it almost seems as though he doesn't. They're simplistic and one sided, which is not to say that the portrait Hyland paints of Patrick isn't a complex one. Being inside his head for the duration of the story was at times almost unendurable, because as a reader I felt the obvious pain and confusion and the uncertainties he was experiencing during his ordeal. He never denies he hit Welkin but he persists in arguing that he never meant to kill him, but an unsympathetic jury sends him to prison. The latter part of the story, which makes up the bulk of the novel, follows Patrick through his trial and incarceration.
I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but unsurprisingly being in prison is transformative for Patrick--in both good and bad ways. There were times I wanted to look away as I was reading, but I couldn't. This is How is a totally gripping read, and despite it's pared down first person narrative style it's also a complex story with much depth. I wouldn't mind rereading it to see what I missed in those moments I was closing my eyes (or one eye at least), but I think I'll first go back and read her two earlier novels, Carry Me Down and How the Light Gets In. And I'm also ready to crack open more of those Orange Prize titles.