Carry Me Down
by M.J. Hyland
Published by Canongate
192 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
More than anything, John Egan wants to get into the Guinness Book of Records, and he's sure he knows how to do it. He may only be 11 but he is confident his unusual ability to tell when people are lying is second to none. This human lie detector does not suffer lies gladly and his suffering is physical. His stomach heaves, his eyes sting, his throat constricts.
John is unusual in other ways as well. He's too tall and physically mature for his years, his affection for and obsession with his mother borders on the unhealthy, he's a loner, and he's a brooder.
Thank heavens for his relationship with his father, which helps to keep some balance in his chaotic inner world. Although unemployed and driven to occasional bouts of anger, his father nevertheless completes the family life picture. He and his wife share a deep affection for each other and for their son, they're sometimes fun and they're beautiful.
When a new teacher arrives at school and takes John's side against a bullying fellow student, acknowledging and encouraging John's intelligence and schoolwork, it seems that the world just got better.
But then his father's temper blows it all away. In a fit of rage, he has struck out at his own mother, in whose home they are all living. Not surprisingly, they are quickly evicted. John comes home from school to find his parents waiting to drive away with him into the unknown, leaving behind all that's familiar: the grandmother he's fond of, his only friend, and his beloved cat, Crito. A subsequent cramped and unhappy stay with an aunt and uncle is followed by a seamy life in a council-flat in the slums of Dublin, where the elevator reeks of urine and the youth gangs make it sometimes impossible to leave or enter the block. John loses a precious gift from his father to these thugs within hours of possessing it.
But it's that ability to detect lies that ultimately seals his already dismal fate and upsets that delicate family balance. John is certain his father is lying about where he goes after the temporary work he's found. He follows him and then tells his mother, who at first refuses to believe that her husband could be unfaithful. Eventually doubt creeps in and she is forced to discover and to confront her husband with the truth. Truth is not always the best solution. The subsequent dissolution of the marriage, leaving John alone with his distraught and ailing mother, is the final straw. Moreover, she is resentful of his presence, blaming him for laying the truth at her unwilling doorstep. His subsequent actions reveal to her and to us that this boy has far more problems than anyone, including us, realized.
The second work of fiction in Hyland's writing career, it's inevitable that it will garner as much praise and recognition as her earlier work, How the Light Gets In. Her intense and uncannily accurate focus on this tormented and ultimately frightening boy makes for riveting reading. Told through his voice, in the present tense, the story feels very real indeed. John doesn't know any more than we do what actions he may take or where those actions may lead. He has no concept of the accumulating negative effects of one disaster after the other on his life, reacting with apparent calm to one calamity after another. Bullied and isolated at school, beset with physical and emotional feelings he can't control, threatened by street gangs, and watching his small family tear apart, he has every reason to feel rage and depression, but he can't vocalize or even realize the depths of his despair. Even when he reaches out to his old teacher for help, he doesn't really understand why he is doing it or what he needs to ask for.
John's characterization is brilliant: menacing yet vulnerable, sensitive yet uncertain, disturbed yet impassive. British author, Hyland, writes from experience. She knows what it's like to grow up in unsettled and unsettling circumstances and this, no doubt, has helped to imbue the novel with a clear ring of authenticity.
It's only in the portrayal of John's champion, his teacher Mr. Roche, that this authenticity feels strained. It is very hard to believe that a teacher would do and say some of the things that Mr. Roche does. (Force a child's head into a bucket of sooty water and make her drink quantities of it, and then keep the class and her after school until she wets herself, for example.) Or say to this same 11-year-old: "It's the likes of you who make the men who rape." I doubt even in Ireland in a time of teacher shortage, Mr. Roche could hold down his job. This is the man who becomes John's champion.
Quibbles aside, this is a novel that's difficult to put down: a psychological study of disturbed adolescence that may even help shed some light on some of the horrific youthful acts of violence we read about today. | August 2006
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.