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Review: This Is How, M.J. Hyland

Patrick’s life could rightly be called a disaster.  He failed out of university, his fiancee dumped him, and he’s severely lacking focus.  He decides that he needs a break and takes a job in a seaside town.  Patrick has hopes for his new place and sometimes even gets along with the widowed owner of his boardinghouse.  But for the most part, he struggles to fit in and feels misunderstood almost constantly.  Eventually, the misunderstandings become insurmountable and Patrick accidentally commits an act he’ll regret for the rest of his life.

I read this book a week ago now and it still hasn’t left my consciousness.  Sometimes I find myself really connecting with bleak books that expose the grittiness of a harsh life I hope never to live personally (and trust me, I won’t be living this one).  And this book is very, very bleak.  Patrick’s life is never easy and he never gets a break.  Not once.  But somehow there was still so much that was great about it, perhaps because I went into it with incredibly low expectations – I’ll try to explain.

First off, the atmosphere.  I could palpably sense the desperate feel of the town, down on its luck, and the setting was perfect for this type of book.  I was amazed to find that I couldn’t put the book down and I found it amazingly easy to read no matter what else was going on.  It was that absorbing.  I remember actively avoiding other books that treated characters this badly, so this was truly unusual.  I did keep hoping for Patrick, hope that wasn’t realized, but I thought it quite remarkable that Hyland could create sympathy for such a disturbed character.

And he is disturbed; it isn’t all his fault, of course, that he’s always felt second best and rejected.  He’s intelligent but never manages to make good on that intelligence.  Instead he is awkward, unsure of the correct course of action most of the time, completely unable to judge what’s appropriate and what isn’t in social situations.  He tries, but he often tries too hard.  I was left wondering if he had an undiagnosed mental disorder and I felt for him because I wanted him to succeed, have people see past the creepy exterior.

One of the biggest criticisms I’ve seen of This is How is that it’s too dark, that the ending doesn’t offer any hope, just continued suffering.  I don’t know if I agree.  I thought that most of the second half of the book was Patrick’s struggle to accept his crime, and I thought that at the end he did – that he finally began making the best of one of life’s worst situations even though he is still suffering.  No, nothing in this book is cheery or happy – but somehow I was completely drawn into it and it was arguably one of the more compelling books I’ve read this year.  I’m not going to list it one of my favorite books of all time, but I do think it earns its spot on the Orange Prize longlist.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.

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