The Observer, Sun 23 Apr 2006 01.06 BST
Carry Me Down
by MJ Hyland
John Egan is huge, gangling and vulnerable, a 12-year-old child-man on the cusp of adolescence, intensely physically aware but almost wilfully emotionally obtuse. In MJ Hyland’s stunning second novel, he relates his impressions of a year of his life, sadness seeping out through his deceptively simple sentences.
The prose is so flattened that it was only toward the end of the book that I realised how much drama there was in John’s existence: violence, poverty, homelessness, the appalling incident in which he wets himself at school, the loss of his only friend.
His father gambles and visits the prostitutes upstairs in their Dublin tower block; his mother sinks into depression. John’s inability to comprehend and assimilate the incidents of his life means that we experience them, as he does, through the defensive miasma of his childlike preoccupations.
Carry Me Down is a tour de force character study. Beyond this, it is a portrait of a child in Ireland at a particular time, the Sixties or perhaps Seventies, oppressed by a lack of opportunity. It’s also an attempt to track the mental damage done by misunderstanding, by neediness that is not met with affection.
It conveys its narrator’s apprehension of the world brilliantly, but its triumph is also a novelistic drawback: John’s is a powerful, utterly believable voice but by the end, it was leaving me gasping for air, for something to take me out of his partial, almost grub-like sense of the world.
John believes he has special powers as a lie detector and writes repeatedly to The Guinness Book of Records urging them to test his ability to read minds. Like his father, who dreams of studying at Trinity College, Dublin, he longs to be singled out, glamorous, special. But though John is adept at noticing what his mother calls ‘white lies’, he is often incapable of working out what prompts people to tell them, of joining the dots of their motivations. His grasp of the world is almost autistic, but it seems to be a willed autism, of a boy who can’t see much point in growing up.
The process of reading the book mirrors John’s process of growing out of childhood: we have to piece together an understanding of the world from the intense but fragmented impressions that come to us. What John fears and feels most acutely is embarrassment and humiliation; his nerve endings are alive to the gross physicality of the world. When he finds his grandmother in bed, he notices that she is slurping her tea, ‘giving off an embarrassing whiff of silage … she sticks her tongue out to greet the cup before each sip and after she sips the tea, she smiles at me’. Inconsequential incidents become loaded with loathing and fear.
There is an intense realism about this novel; I believed completely in John Egan and suffered with him, even while I was aware that his suffering was particular and that sometimes he simply wasn’t noticing the things that mattered. At the end, after John’s unvoiced desperation has led him to do something terrible, it seems his life could go either way. He might finally get a grip or he might become dislocated from reality altogether. The novel offers hope that it will be the former, although since we are so dependent on John’s flawed perceptions, I wondered if perhaps I hadn’t lost the handle on reality myself, floating about in a world in which all that mattered was the quality of his experience, because there was no access to anything else.
Carry Me Down is almost claustrophobically narrow, reducing the big events of John’s life to immediate, sensory impressions. But it is also enthralling and absorbing and capable of arousing sympathy to a degree that is almost painful. At the end, my feelings for John were so strong they were like a physical ache.