This Is How by M.J. Hyland
This Is How is M.J. Hyland’s third and – though over a decade has passed since its publication in 2009 – most recent novel. It received high critical praise upon its release, including superlative reviews from Helen Garner and Hilary Mantel, but in the intervening years it has become something of a forgotten classic. This is perhaps due in part to the prize-winning status of Hyland’s first two novels – How the Light Gets In and Carry Me Down – which have entered the Australian canon, as part of Penguin and Text’s respective classics series.
Of all her work, This Is How deserves to be remembered as Hyland’s true masterpiece. It is an unnerving portrait of a young man slowly lurching towards tragedy and its aftermath – a deliberate and worthy reply to Camus’s The Outsider. It was also a stand-out novel for me during Melbourne’s lockdown. The book’s tightly wound narrative seemed to tap into last year’s collective anxiety, with both reader and narrator bound up claustrophobically in Hyland’s artful use of the present tense.
Patrick, her young narrator, moves to a holiday town on the English coast after his fiancée calls off their marriage. On the question of this inciting incident, Patrick swings between aloof and emotionally wounded, just one element of his unreliability as a narrator. As he moves between the boarding house where he lives, his job at the local mechanic and the pubs around town, the reader is hardwired into the grim volatility of his interior life.
This closeness between reader and narrator creates an uneasy feeling of complicity as things fall apart. Hyland subtly manipulates this compact with the reader, having us confront questions of blame, circumstance, crime and punishment. This Is How – despite its seaside setting – is not a ‘beach read’. Patrick’s lonely fate lingers long after turning the final page on this Australian classic.