Thursday, October 16, 2008

Carry Me Down

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland is a disturbing and brilliant novel (a combination of adjectives that applies to some of my favourite pieces of literature). It totally divided my book group last week. There were some who hated it so much they could hardly even discuss the book- and these are lovely, educated readers- and then there were those of us who just fell totally in love with the beautiful writing and the bizarre world that Hyland creates (I like to think we were right!).

The book is set in Ireland in the 1970s and is told from the point of view of 12 year old John Egan. John would have to be one of the most unusual and fully realised characters in recent writing and his world is definitely a strange place for the reader to spend time in. John is physically mature beyond his years and is verging on a kind of madness (although the nature of this was hotly contested in my book group- some saw John as a dangerous sociopath, others, myself included, preferred to think of him as a troubled child who is reacting to the traumas he experiences). He is an only child who enjoys a disturbingly close relationship with his depressive mother and feels a kind of rivalry with his handsome, unemployed father. The family lives with John's grandmother on whom they depend financially, a situation that is fraught with tension.

John believes he is a human lie detector and uses his skill to interpret his interactions with those around him. And while he dreams of making it into the Guinness Book of Records with his unique skill, those around him expect him to grow up and fit into society's expectations. He is a boy whose physical body has outstripped his child's mind.

Hyland plays with the idea of madness and explores the way in which children can live in imaginative worlds that resemble the worlds constructed by the insane. She asks us to question the effect of a child's environment on their behaviour, particularly when the action moves to an extremely grim housing estate outside of Dublin. She also explores what we consider 'normal', ending the novel with a welcome hint of hope for John and his parents (or that is how I interpreted the ending, others in the book group felt it was a relentlessly depressing ending).

Carry Me Down is at times a very bleak book but I found that overall the beauty of the writing and the fascinating characters made this book un-put-downable. At times John is a funny, astute narrator who I genuinely liked, despite his confronting behaviour. It won't be a book for everyone, and it's not one to read if you want a light read, but it's definitely one of my favourite reads of this year.


Sarah said...

I haven't read this yet, although I bought it when it was on the Booker shortlist. I'll be interested to see if I love it or loathe it, as it seems to be a divisive book.

Stephen said...

I don't know anything about this but I'm intrigued. I like disturbing and brilliant too.

Leah said...

Really liked your review. This one sounds very interesting and I will keep an eye out for it.

jess said...

Thanks for the comments.

Sarah, it is certainly a love it or hate it kind of book.

Stephen, this kind of reminded me of Engleby in a way and I remember you liking that.

Leah, hope you enjoy it if it comes your way.