As I continue along the theme of reading novels told from the point of view of a child narrator, I found recommendations of M. J. Hyland's Carry Me Down. This is a story about John, a lonely eleven year old child who becomes obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records, and who, inspired by the tremendous and bizarre feats of strangers, and following a particularly gruesome event (which I'll say no more) convinces himself he has a gift for lie detection. He is, he thinks, a human lie detector. However, far from being a quirky tale portraying the whims and romanticism of young adolescents imagining their own superpowers, M. J. Hyland's narrative is disturbing and mentally scarring; and powerful enough to haunt you when you're reading it, when you're not reading it, and long after you have read it.
The opening scene unfolds with John, his `Ma', and his `Da' all reading at the kitchen table. From this very simple setting, and with minimal character interaction, we can immediately tell that something is very wrong with this family. There's no authorial telling, however, no pointing out of human failings, faults, addictions, perversions. Instead, in this novel it's all show: as we journey through dialogue, actions, interests and setting it becomes apparent that this story is trying to tell us something important about parenting, about childhood, about the psychology of growing up and the loneliness it brings. I was compelled by the novel, by John and by his very sad and emotionally starved existence.
His parents' absorption by their own problems is a major cause of this, and while it becomes very easy to feel abhorrence for the neglect they're inflicting on their son, it is also unsettlingly easy to contextualize it with parenting in general. There are hints of violence, (a slap here and there from a father with a bad temper - something not altogether unheard of in the '70s) some harsh criticism, scant attention to John's neediness, and prolonged and heartbreaking periods of emotional neglect. The latter caused by a mistake a lot of parents are guilty of; that is, paying too much attention to their own lives at the expense of their child's.
There are some points mid-way through the novel where the portrayal of John's mental state becomes almost unbearable to read. When he pees his pants in front of his school class, for example. This scene, although thoroughly compelling, almost makes us want to attack the author: `What are you doing to him!' We might shout. `Hasn't this poor kid been through enough?' But, for the author's polemic John hasn't suffered enough, as his emotional and physical isolation increases till he slides into the pit of despair for most of the remaining novel. Thankfully, though, just at a time when it seems as though there is no hope, the most disturbing culmination of his damaged mind paradoxically provides hope and optimism, and we leave the novel feeling as though good might actually come of all the bad.
It is very easy to see why Carry Me Down was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. M.J. Hyland is clearly gifted at maintaining consistency of voice, of tone; brilliant at the old and widely valued skill of showing not telling, and thoroughly convincing in her ability to shape a narrative from the point of view of a child. And although this compelling novel is a depressing read full of hopelessness, the fact that I continued reading, the fact that I wanted to continue reading and the fact that I read it in two days, tells you all you need to know about its incredible lure. A brilliant work of art.