Despite Di Morrissey’s weird objections to this book on her appearance at the First Tuesday Book Club, the fact that the other four members were raving about his book gave me enough justification to pick it up from work. I should mention that I have read Hyland’s earlier novel, Carry Me Down, and it left me cold. But what of this new one?
Patrick Oxtoby has left the big city in which he grew up to find solace and solitude in a small seaside village. He takes up in a boarding house with two other young men, and sets to work at a small mechanics. But his mother comes down to interfere, and as his temper rises, so too does the danger to those around him.
Moral ambiguity is something that is dealt with a lot in literary fiction – questions of right and wrong; of good and evil, and all these kinds of things make for excellent discussions about the human psyche. And Patrick is certainly not a bad person – and definitely not evil. Yet the act he commits (I’m going to spoil it for you, otherwise I can’t talk about the novel properly – he kills someone) is evil. Or, at the very least, morally wrong. There is no real reason for why Patrick takes a heavy spanner to his fellow boarder’s head, or none that I, as an outside reader, can see. All it seems to have taken is a little bit of constant niggling from his mother (something I personally identified with very strongly), and some weird altercations with some people in a bar. Is this really enough for someone to snap? Maybe for most of us, the answer is no. But at this time, in this situation, with these two people, it is enough for Patrick to snap.
It is clear from the outset that there is something not quite right with Patrick. Granted, he has just been through a breakup with a woman who had planned on marrying him, yet despite this, there is a deeper and greater sense of unease with patrick as our main character. He is very particular about certain things, he is definitely inclined to overthink every act (both his own and others’), and even though he protests to just wanting a friend to talk to, every time someone tries to connect with him, he is quick to anger, and simply becomes more grumpy. It is no surprise, then, that he should be so enamoured with the mechanic trade – a trade in which he can fix things, things that have a defined problem and solution. If I didn’t know any better, I would suggest that there is more than a hint of Asperger’s Syndrome in Patrick’s activities, and this is perhaps the closest explanation we have to understanding his actions. This is, of course, no excuse for the spanner incident, but his lack of understanding of social interactions makes him arguably more susceptible to breaking them in a more obvious way than simply not smiling at someone across the street.
And so, while the court case and eventual gaoling of Patrick goes on around him, he maintains his innocence. He didn’t mean to do it, so why should he be punished? His actions were not premeditated, so he isn’t really a killer, right? This question becomes less and less important as Patrick begins to realise the magnitude of his actions, and as he attempts to deal with his life in prison. The prison scenes are pretty interesting, with Hyland clearly (I hope) having done a lot of research into what makes these people tick. Having lived in a university college for the last three years, I can see similarities here. Put hundreds of people in a confined building, and social strata and systems form themselves, and Patrick must learn to fit in with the already established order.
The way he does this is most fascinating. His own preconceptions about criminals come into play, and while he spends time trying to distance himself from his cellmate – a convicted sex offender (who, I must add, is perfectly drawn) – he also begins to find friendship in the most unlikely of places in the most unlikely of ways. This ties into the ending of the novel, which is actually one of the best endings I have read in a long time. Patrick finally begins to accept his new life conditions, and while clearly still uncomfortable, he does manage to find solace in a person society deems to be similar to him, despite sharing little.
What is it that makes us so fascinated with the minds of killers? Certainly, from the popularity of Dexter (a brilliant television show, I should add), there is a market for this kind of exploratory fiction. But just as Dexter is wry and, in the end, a loveable kind of killer, Patrick Oxtoby is not. He is distant, cold, and impenetrable. This is How is a subtle novel that is hard to pin down at first, but it certainly provides some interesting food for thought for the enquiring mind.