It started so well. I was hugely impressed with the MJ Hyland book choice, This is How, finding the writing tense and flawless, the characters beautifully drawn and the plot entirely plausible, with a strangely redemptive ending. I’d already had positive comments by e-mail from Helen, who said she “really couldn’t put down the M J Hyland book! After I finished it I went out and bought another one by her, ‘Carry Me Down’ which I also loved. Both books allowed the reader get inside the head of someone a bit different, someone living on the edge who doesn’t quite conform, someone who is an outsider.
“She used a large dose of dialogue to keep things moving. I also think her writing style is simple and unadorned, and never pretentious, unlike some of the other writers we’ve been reading lately! Her main characters were real and empathetic to me.
“I am a big fan of novels where things are happening now, written in the first person present tense. It pulls me into the author’s world and makes me feel what the main character is feeling. The whole reading experience becomes intense and vivid.
“I was reminded of Sebastian Faulks ‘Engleby’ which I read last year, and thoroughly enjoyed. Again a glimpse into the mind of someone slightly unhinged. Always a pleasure!”
And then Janet – certainly one of the hardest to please in the group – announced that she liked it too, praising the subtle writing and the use of the unreliable narrator. I thought for a moment there was going to be a round of applause, so rarely do Janet’s thumbs point upwards when discussing the book group choices. Mike, also a tough critic, found the author impressive, feeling she created ‘believable, Pinter-esque dialogue,’ and ‘convincing characters.’ He was reminded of the writing of Camus and also of the character of Pinky in Brighton Rock, a comparison that new member Rose also made.
And then came the backlash.
Ann also said she admired the ‘note perfect’ writing and Hyland’s use of techniques like foreshadowing, with regard to the protagonist’s tools. But, she added, she found the book ‘profoundly depressing.’ Jacqui, whilst also admiring some of the writer’s techniques, such as the flashbacks and the strong supporting characters, found the novel ‘flat, dull and repetitive,’ rather like reading a film script, and with too much dialogue. Jacqui’s experience as a lawyer meant she found the legal process convincing but thought the account of prison life should be even more brutal. Jill had nothing positive to say, finding that she simply couldn’t believe in the book.
Several readers (though not all) found the second half of the novel, in which Patrick is in prison, better than the first. Paula found the two ‘halves’ inconsistent and was not sure why Patrick opened up when in prison. Rose found the intense detail in this section difficult to enjoy.
Anne R would have liked more sense of the 1960s and found the author’s style too repetitive, although she found Patrick’s awkwardness with women convincing. Not everyone liked having pieces of the ‘jigsaw’ missing. Margaret found it ‘quick and easy, with simple language which went with the character,’ but said she couldn’t engage with the protagonist and overall felt ‘removed’ from the novel. She also found the killing itself contrived – and lots of readers were did not entirely buy this part of the action.
One review said that Hyland answered her title question of ‘This is How’ – but not the question of ‘Why.’ This was an authorial decision I admired, but by the end of the meeting I found myself in a minority. The quest continues to find a book which we all truly like!
An inspired idea for our July session, when the Book Group goes slightly AWOL, in a very restrained and literary way, of course. Thanks to both Janet and Ann whose great minds thought alike on this suggestion. The task is to re-read a book that was a favourite or made a big impression on you when you were young – and discover whether the seminal work still holds its magic. That’s for July – two more (undoubtedly controversial) choices to get through before then.
Next meeting: Tuesday May 3rd at 6.30pm. Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed. The Hand that First held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell – and Janet as guest ‘facilitator,’ for one month only (unless she does a much better job than me, of course – gulp)!