Patrick Oxtoby is one of life’s walking wounded. He narrates the weeks after his girlfriend breaks off their engagement “because you can’t express your emotions”, although he explains he “doesn’t have very many”. As he reveals a life of inner solitary confinement, we squirm at the anger, sorrow, anxiety, jealousy, and insecurity seething below the surface.
In an attempt to start a new life, the 23-year-old auto mechanic gets a job in a small town a couple of hours away, moving from his parents’ home to a seaside boarding house. When his mother comes to see that he’s settled in, he’s “happy to touch her hand” but handles his embarrassment in front of the other boarders by going to his room and pummeling his pillow with a ball peen hammer, “one fucking bitch, two fucking bitch…”. No feelings indeed!
Patrick tells his story with stark simplicity and events seem to line up with the same kind of order and precision that characterize his toolkit. His fetish for this box is striking. He uses lies and alcohol to deal with social stress, and we realize how appallingly bereft he is of tools with which to live his life. His sharp observations of his landlady and fellow boarders only seem to confuse his rigidly set mind. As he begins to form and fumble these new relationships, we’re uncomfortable with the stream of thoughts misreading one situation after another.
Patrick says he’s never been violent or even had violent thoughts, although he wanted to “break Sara’s spine” when she left him and wants to slug a hapless old man in the local pub. When he mislays his toolbox his panic is palpable.
This Is How is the story of a young life disastrously unraveling, but the appallingly senseless act of violence that lands an uncomprehending Patrick behind bars is amazingly the catalyst for a genuine dialogue with life instead of with his thoughts about it.
In the second part of the novel, Patrick indeed meets his match in the rigidity of the penal system. After flailing madly through jail, trial, and abandonment by his family, his survival instinct leads him not just to observe his surroundings, sometimes brutal and sometimes compassionate, but to finally begin taking baby steps to maturation by actually relating to his caretakers, his fellow prisoners, and the bizarre structural system of incarceration. He notes with real insight that the limitations of this small world somehow suit him better than the overwhelming confusion of the world outside. With wrenching tenderness the final scene gives us a glimpse of Patrick as an adult, heart broken open.
M.J. Hyland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for her second novel, Carry Me Down. She writes with the same kind of clarity and directness as J.M. Coetzee and elicits in the reader a level of emotional angst befitting Patricia Highsmith.
Vivien Gnekow De Bernardi is an American married to a Swiss, who lives in Ticino. She worked as a Special Ed teacher for 30 years and now gives her attention to her twin passions of reading and writing.