This Is How by M J Hyland

This is Now is not the sort of book I usually read. But it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, it was highly lauded, and my library had a copy. It seemed to be time to step of my comfort zone. And I’m very glad that I did.

The story opens with Patrick Oxtoby  in his early 20s. He dropped out of university to become a mechanic, a disappointment to his family.

And then his fiancée deserted him. He decided to make a change. He found a new job in a seaside town and lodgings in a boarding house owned by a young widow where two other men are already in residence.

Soon it becomes clear that something is not right. Patrick is socially inept and he has absolutely no empathy with anyone else. He wants to fit in, but he doesn’t know how.

It could be depression. It could be that he falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Or it could be that he is a psychopath.

Patrick tells this story in the first person. Simply and clearly, reporting conversations, facts, events. It may not seem gripping but it is, it really is.

Some things go well for Patrick. He begins a tentative relationship with a barmaid, he socialises with his fellow lodgers, he gets on friendly terms with his landlady.

But things go wrong too. His equilibrium is disturbed by an unexpected visit from his mother. There isn’t enough work to occupy him and he has time on his hands. And everyone else seems to have their own life, things to do. Patrick doesn’t.

And Patrick can’t cope with things going wrong. Small things begin to annoy him. And that leads him to an extraordinary act.

It would be unfair to say exactly what happens, but it redefines Patrick’s life. He is more constrained, but in a strange way he is less troubled, and more able to cope.

I’m struggling to explain why this book works so well.

The prose is sparse, and yet it conveys everything that you need to know. And draws you into Patrick’s life. You see the world through the eyes of somebody you wouldn’t have noticed, wouldn’t have given a thought to otherwise. And you see things that you don’t expect to see, in life or in fiction.

It isn’t faultless. There are inconsistencies, there are some strange moments. But I was so gripped by the story that I didn’t want to stop. And there were far more things that were caught quite perfectly.

This is a book that will stay with me long after it goes back to the library.

A dark and dazzling piece of writing.

Library Loot

Lots of books this week. You see, in Cornwall you can use your ticket in any library in the county. So when I have a little time in another town I always try to have a look around that library, and inevitably bring a few books home. So my first three books come from my usual libraries, and the second three come from another. It sounds like a lot of books, but believe me I could have brought home many more. I was actually quite restrained!

And here are the books:

The Chapel at the End of the World by Kirsten McKenzie

“Emilio and Rosa are childhood sweethearts, engaged to be married. But it is 1942 and the war has taken Emilio far from Italy, to a tiny Orkney island where he is a POW. Rosa must wait for him to return and help her mother run the family hotel on the shores of Lake Como, in Italy. Feeling increasingly frustrated with his situation, Emilio is inspired by the idea of building a chapel on the barren island. The prisoners band together to create an extraordinary building out of little more than salvaged odds and ends and homemade paints. Whilst Emilio’s chapel will remain long after the POW camp has been left to the sheep, will his love for Rosa survive the hardships of war and separation? For Rosa is no longer the girl that he left behind. She is being drawn further into the Italian resistance movement and closer to danger, as friendships and allegiances are ever complicated by the war. Human perseverance and resilience are at the heart of this strong debut and the small Italian chapel remains, as it does in reality on the island of Lamb’s Holm, as a symbol of these qualities.”

This has been on my wishlist for a while, and I have to say it looks wonderful.

The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers

“The bed was broken and tilted grotesquely sideways. Harrison was sprawled over in a huddle of soiled blankets. His mouth was twisted …Harrison had been an expert on deadly mushrooms. How was it then that he had eaten a large quantity of death-dealing muscarine? Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder? The documents in the case seemed to be a simple collection of love notes and letters home. But they concealed a clue to the brilliant murderer who baffled the best minds in London.”

I blame P D James. She mentioned it in Talking About Detective Fiction. I hadn’t come across it before, but I was intrigued by the concept of a mystery by DLS in letters. It was in the library catalogue, so I waited and this week it appeared.

This is How by M J Hyland

“Patrick is a loner. An intelligent but disturbed young man struggling to find his place in the world. He ventures out on his own and as he begins to find happiness commits an act of violence that sends his life horribly and irreversibly out of control. But should a person’s life be judged by a single bad act? This is How is a compelling and macabre journey into the dark side of human existence and a powerful meditation on the nature of guilt and redemption.”

This is a little outside my comfort zone, but I like to try something different from time to time. This one is on the Orange Prize longlist – which suggests a certain quality – and there was a copy on the shelf, so I brought it home to try.

The Songwriter by Beatrice Colin

New York, 1916. Monroe Simonov, a song-plugger from Brooklyn, is in love with a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who has left him for California. Inez Kennedy, a fashion model in a department store, has just one season remaining to find a wealthy husband before she must return to the Midwest. Ana Denisova, a glamorous political exile, gives lectures and writes letters while she waits for the Russian people to overthrow their Tsar. Then America joins the war, jazz sweeps the city’s dance floors, the old order is swept away by newly minted millionaires and the entire nation is gripped by the Red Scare. Although the world is changing faster than they could ever have imagined, Monroe, Inez and Ana discover that they are still subject to the tyranny of the heart. In this richly atmospheric and deftly plotted novel, the paths of these three central figures cross and re-cross, leaving a trail of passion, infidelity and betrayal, and hurtle towards an explosive climax.”

I have still to read Lily Aphrodite. I’m sure I like it and I own a copy but it’s suffering from “own books pushed to one side because library books have to be returned” syndrome. So it made sense to borrow this one, which I’m sure will inspire me to pick up the earlier book!

Paperboy by Christopher Fowler

“Christopher Fowler’s memoir captures life in suburban London as it has rarely been seen: through the eyes of a lonely boy who spends his days between the library and the cinema, devouring novels, comics, cereal packets – anything that might reveal a story. Caught between an ever-sensible but exhausted mother and a DIY-obsessed father fighting his own demons, Christopher takes refuge in words. His parents try to understand their son’s peculiar obsessions, but fast lose patience with him – and each other. The war of nerves escalates to include every member of the Fowler family, and something has to give, but does it mean that a boy must always give up his dreams for the tough lessons of real life? Beautifully written, this rich and astute evocation of a time and a place recalls a childhood at once entertainingly eccentric and endearingly ordinary.”

I’ve never read any of Christopher Fowler’s fiction – though the Bryant & May novels have been recommended – but I picked this up and I saw some lovely passages about books, so I just had to bring it home. 

The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge by Patricia Duncker

“It was New Year’s Day, 2000. Hunters on their way home through a forest in the Jura stumble upon a half-circle of dead bodies lying in the freshly fallen snow. A nearby holiday chalet contains the debris of a seemingly ordinary Christmas: champagne, decorations, presents for the dead children. The hunters are questioned and sent away. As they descend the mountain, a large dark car rises past them in the gloom. The woman within barely acknowledges their presence. The Judge, Dominique Carpentier, is in charge of the investigation. Commissaire Andre Schweigen is waiting for her. They have encountered this suicide sect before. In the chalet they find a strange leather-bound book, written in mysterious code, containing maps of the stars. The book of “The Faith” leads them to the Composer, Friedrich Grosz, who is connected to every one of the dead. Surely he must be implicated in “The Faith”? And so the pursuit begins. Carpentier, Schweigen and the Judge’s idiosyncratic assistant Gaelle, are drawn into a world of complex family ties, ancient cosmic beliefs and seductive, disturbing music. Carpentier, known as the sect hunter, prides herself on her ability to expose frauds and charlatans. She also likes to win. Has she met her match in the Composer?”

I’ve read three of Patricia Duncker’s books. Two I liked and admired and one – James Miranda Barry – I absolutely loved. So when I saw this, shiny and new, I really had to pick it up.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

Which book should I go for next? And which are you curious to know more about?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.