MJ Hyland was born in 1968 to Irish parents. She studied law and English at the University of Melbourne and now teaches at the Centre for New Writing at Manchester University. Her second novel, Carry Me Down, was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, the 2007 Commonwealth Writers Prize and longlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. As well as winning the Encore Prize it has just won the highly acclaimed Hawthornden Prize 2007 for imaginative literature. Established in 1919, the Hawthornden Prize is one of the oldest literary prizes in the UK and brings with it a £10,000 reward or half a days wages if you are a footballer.
The novel centres around John Egan, a young adolescent who encounters more than his fair share of excitement in his formative years, all of which conspire to turn him into a highly intense individual. As often seems to be the case with Irish based novels we encounter the rawness of lived experience which is tempered on occasion by humour. This comes in the form of word games where the family deliberately mispronounce words e.g. calling a Cadillac a cardiac, and then correct each other. It reads as a rather innocent form of bonding, what you would expect in the Vorderman household, but for a growing and impressionable adolescent unable to distinguish between fact and fiction, it forges a dangerous mindset.
John, in true adolescent fashion, becomes obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records and dreams of joining ‘all the other people who do not want to be forgotten or ignored’, touring the world, and discussing his gift on the Late, Late Show. This leads to the self-delusional belief that he is a human lie-detector who can spot them a mile away. He starts to keep a diary called the The Gol of Seil (which is ‘Log of Lies’ spelt sdrawkcab) which records all of the lies he witnesses and the accompanying behaviour associated with particular forms of lying.
Unfortunately, he is too young to be able to recognise the context in which lies take place and that lying is sometimes a necessity rather than a negative which cannot be reduced to a simple formula. For example, his father is unemployed which is largely due to his own laziness, having given up a career as an electrician. He occupies his time reading and tells his family he is preparing for a university entrance exam. Although John is right to expose his father as a fraud, he is too young to recognise this is a weak man’s attempt to retain his status in the household. On another occasion his father buys him a pair of socks which he claims belonged to Robert Pershing Wadlow, the largest man in the world. It is a lovely gesture, an attempt to recognise his child on his own terms, albeit born of economic necessity. But John soon realises that they couldn’t have possibly belonged to him and starts quizzing his father. Once more the bond between father and son crumbles.
John’s parents recognise that there is something odd about their child and find him unnerving, particularly when he invades their personal space by sitting too closely, insisting on climbing in bed at inopportune moments, or simply sitting and staring at them for long periods. His inability to understand boundaries and privacy can lead to misunderstandings, such as feelings of rejection and isolation, which in turn perpetuate his intensity and introversion.
Overall, John Egan is an incredibly needy child who pushes his parents and those around him to the edge, making him, albeit for different reasons, as annoying as David Platt of Corrie. There were times when I wished someone would absolutely throttle him. But then you shut the book, make a cup of tea and remember he is an adolescent and this kind of obsessive, curious idiosyncratic behaviour is part of the growing process. Then you wonder what John would be like in a different family, under different circumstances, with more tolerant and respectful parents. For example, if his father hadn’t beaten his mother then they wouldn’t have had to leave their house and been able to develop his relationship with Mr. Roche, the first human to stand up for him and take an interest in his life. As Newton has showed us through physics, every cause has a reaction. The problem with life is we rarely know what this will be until it comes right up and smacks us in the face. This book will leave you with bruises.