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Are you dangerous? Can you imagine one moment of your own violence resulting in a person’s death? How would you react if you made one terrible mistake and faced serious punishment? If you’ve ever considered these questions, I suggest you get your hands on a copy of Maria Hyland’s This Is How.
Patrick Oxtoby is a tidy, quiet, handsome oddball. He has been dumped by his first proper girlfriend and he can’t deal with the pity and concern of his family, so Patrick runs away to a seaside town where he will work as a mechanic and live in a respectable boarding house. This is where Patrick will break free of familial bonds, old patterns and where he will become his own man. Except it doesn’t quite work like that because in a moment of anxiety and frustration, Patrick applies an adjustable wrench to a sleeping head.
And throughout the book the reader is presented with plenty of emotional wrenching, because while Patrick’s chosen murder weapon is easily adjustable, Patrick isn’t. Patrick is an outsider who lacks the knack for being happy. He doesn’t simply meet and chat to people, instead ‘he gets a chat going’ or he ‘gets a good mood up’. There was a lot that was familiar to me in Patrick: his detailed observations of the world, his self-consciousness when interacting with others and his quiet reserve. It is almost as if he has that famously writerly distance between himself as the protagonist of his life, and himself as the observer of it. Interestingly, Patrick does not unravel – he does not undergo a transformation for better or worse. He is much the same man at the end of the book as at the start, it is just that he has done something unbelievably stupid in-between.
Stylistically the book is straightforward with Patrick narrating in clipped, dialogue-heavy prose. Plot-wise This is How is straightforward: it is the tale of a man who kills someone without really meaning to, mostly because the victim happened to be quite annoying at times. Yet the whole is psychologically complex. Raskolnikov, our favourite idle student with an axe, had a much clearer motive for murder than Patrick. Patrick reminded me more of the Ancient Mariner, killing an albatross mostly because he shouldn’t. It’s the mad, instant allure of pushing a big red button that says DO NOT PRESS.
Reviewers have mentioned a gay subtext, and homosexual thoughts are present, but I wasn’t sure Patrick was solely supposed to represent a gay man denying his true sexuality. Patrick is so shut down and sexually inexperienced that it’s unclear if he has discovered much at all about his sexual self and preferences. I read Patrick more as an ‘everyman’ at the beginning of his sexual life, trying to figure out who he is and considering new options in new circumstances. The book seems to present us not with a gay/straight divide, but more with the ambiguous sexual possibilities available to any human being.
The novel is particularly gripping in the second half, when Patrick experiences something of the justice system. The book is meticulously researched and the characterisation of Patrick’s new friends is superb. However, I breathlessly awaited Patrick’s psychiatric evaluation which was certain to flag up some personality disorder – after all, this is a man who not only talks to himself, but shouts angrily. The evaluation would land him in a psychiatric ward, I was sure, but the evaluation never came. Initially, I thought this was a weakness of the text, but then considered that perhaps people do commonly slip through the net. I then questioned whether Patrick was indeed mentally unwell, and if extreme loneliness and social exclusion can ever count as extenuating mental disorders. Peculiarly, at no point could I decide whether I thought Patrick deserved his freedom. Matters are further complicated as Patrick shows little remorse for his crime – Patrick seems to regret ruining his own life more than he rues taking the life of another, and his prevailing feeling is embarrassment that he did something so reckless and stupid.
The intriguing title of the book answers particular questions that morph into other questions as we go along. Initially, I looked for the one question that the title answered. Was the book saying This is how (it feels to be an outsider) Or ‘This is how (a person becomes a murderer)?’ Or was it saying ‘This is how (very easy it is to kill a man)?’ At the book’s close, the title seemed to be answering the question ‘how can a sensitive man survive this?’
This Is How isn’t purely a voyeuristic look at a murderer. The reader might question Patrick’s actions and psyche but one also has the unnerving sense that the book is looking back and asking questions of its readers. Is murder not as difficult as it might seem? If the circumstances were right, could anyone murder? Could you? Hilary Mantel’s cover quote suggests that this is a book that ‘aims straight for the truth and heart’ and this summary echoes my own feeling about this incredibly powerful novel. For the insights it offers into complicated parent/child relationships and its exploration of the connection between human marginalisation and violence, This Is How is sure to win prizes. It’s a sad, truthful book, but there is a gleam of light at the end. On the final page there is hope that even after the most terrible mistakes it is still possible to move forward and find another way through.
Canongate, ISBN-13: 978-1847673824, 320 pages, £12.99, paperback.
Lisa is an author with optimistic tendencies and Armenian genes.
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