John can't stop growing. At the age of 11 he is six feet tall and looks much older, but his mind is still that of a child. We see everything from John's point of view. He is obsessed with the idea that he will one day be famous and writes letters to the Ripley Museum near Niagara Falls, and to the Guinness Book of Records. He can tell when people are lying and thinks this might be his route to fame. He could be the human lie detector and people would come to see him from far and wide.
John and his parents are living with his grandmother in Gorey, a country village (in Ireland). His parents are having a difficult time and his father wants to enrol in University, but he has to pass the Trinity examination. John doesn't make friends easily, but when a new teacher arrives at the school, John is picked out as someone special - for the first time in his life his vivid imagination seems valued. But then his father quarrels with his grandmother and they leave for Dublin where they live in a high-rise block of flats and his father gets a low-grade job as a machinist.
The intensity of this narrative which gives us John's internal thoughts and ideas in relentless detail, can become a little overwhelming. John seems at times both threatening and vulnerable and the family atmosphere becomes claustrophobic, especially after John catches his father lying once too often. There is one incident at this stage of the book that is horrifically chilling and may cause the reader to withdraw any easy sympathy the book has built up for John. Nevertheless, this is a totally engrossing read.
on 28 October 2009
11 year old John Egan shares a cottage in Ireland with his parents, his grandmother and a cat. He is obsessed with the Guiness Book of Records and with his ability to detect the lies and untruths told by those around him.
Yet these obsessions cause trouble. His attempt to break a world record leads to an embarrasing incident in class whilst his pursuit of truth affects the relationships of those closest to him. His family are thrown out of the cosy cottage and end up on the twelfth floor of a grimy, Dublin skyscraper.
Throughout this novel, narrated in the first person by John, we question the integrity and even the sanity of the storyteller, realising his obsessional nature may reflect a psychological condition which prevents him from appreciating the effects his actions have on others. Yet it is this element of mystery that makes this novel so intriguing. MJ Hyland explores the naivety and uncertainty of a 12 year old boy with precision and the novel is written in an unfussy, controlled style.
on 21 October 2006
This novel held me in thrall for all its pages. These passed too quickly, except for the excruciating pain of the move to the project slum in Dublin, with its unforgettable stench and filth- particularly the scenes around the elevator and the gang bullying.These were so vivid and real that each second dragged by painfully.I found John totally believable and not nearly as weird or eccentric as others have. I find John's reactions to his world a credible and deeply moving reaction to the adults that stifle his creativity and his peers that reject him when he behaves differently to the norm- or simply because he matures early and is a target for bullying and derision. His hopes to make his mark in the world and achieve something beyond the moribund pretensions of his father fuels an obsessive need to excel and be noticed.This is so common a need in teenagers as to be a cliche.John's methods may be unusual but his motivation is a deeply innate part of the individuation process essential but so painful during adolescence.That he chooses lie detection as his "gift" perfectly reflects the role he takes in the family- as the go between from his mother's sensual and imaginative life and his father's closed intellectualism and his granny's cloying possessiveness.John understands his purpose in life is to reveal the truth- like all art at its highest levels. Taking on this role is a potential minefield, and explosions abound.
John's mother's lively encouragement of his imagination and creativity, reflecting her own love of fantasy and theatre, add to this explosive mix, and his sensual attachment to her is poignantly expressed , as are his other emerging sexual feelings.The betrayal of Brendan is keenly observed by Hyland, and the claustraphobic intensity of the shed scene was unforgettable.Kate makes for a villain of operatic proportions.
Tragically, just as Mr Roche- a potentially redemptive and inspirational force for good in John's life arrives on the scene, his father's failure to provide any stability for his family ruptures John's hopes of finding acceptance and self esteem through the new school experiences.The later appearance of a more subdued and flattened Mr Roche was disturbing- a teasing inclusion, perhaps left a little too loose ended....No ideal saviour was to be provided in this novel, all are compromised by the world that refuses acceptance to the illfitting pegs...
Life in Dublin is a nightmare of terrifying proportions.John's earlier life appears as a paradise by comparison. Hyland paints this ghoulish world of the ugly ordinariness of poverty and ignorance unflinchingly. How a boy of John's sensitivity survives at all is surprising. His mother almost capitulates to the horrors and his father is dragged into the dark meaninglessness all too easily.While John's actions to save/destroy his mother in her depressed despair are shocking, the ultimate result saves the whole family.Like a bushfire that regenerates, John's desperate act transforms his life and his parents'.By at last realising the catastrophic damage their actions have reeked on John's mind, they burst into positive action to save John's future- and their own. One can only hope that Hyland is not overly optimistic about John's future, unfairly cast as he is as the guilty party .After so much damage has been done,one hopes his resiliance and intelligence will win through.The ending promises hope and redemption- a brave move in a world that so often preaches only doom and hopelessness.
on 3 October 2006
"This is writing of the highest order." This is how JM Coetzee describes Carry Me Down. So, it is with high expectations that I started reading M.J. Hyland's latest offering - and at the end of the book I emerged astonished, puzzled, bewildered, and deeply disturbed.
Few pages into the book, and you wonder if this is another coming-of-age offering similar to David Mitchell's latest offering; the somewhat simple, yet brilliantly devious prose reminded me of Ali Smith's brilliant novel, the Accidental. However, continue reading, and you realise that this is no ordinary tale. It is meant to haunt the reader long after he or she finishes reading it.
Narrated by the almost 12-year old boy, John Egan, Carry Me Down offers little but the complicated lad's view of the story. He, his beautiful mother and his jobless father all live with John's paternal grandmother at her place in Gorey, Ireland. Much of the second half of the book takes place in Dublin, where the family moves after a nasty spat between John's father and his grandmother.
However, the theme of the story lies in what the boy claims is his extraordinary ability to "detect lies." The lazy reader who likes to have an informed opinion by just reading the jacket of the book might assume that the boy indeed does have a gift. But, Hyland offers little in the way, despite the "apparent" (and I stress the word apparent) experimental successes John demonstrates - particularly, when it comes to revealing his father's extramarital affair, although I'm not convinced, if indeed that is the case.
In any event, while Hyland delicately entagles John's complicated personality, several more disturbing events ensue, and the reader can be forgiven for sympathising with the disturbed, unusually tall adolescent with homosexual feelings (although this, thankfully, was paid only the attention that was due, without providing channels for the tabloids to exploit the angle). Although I would be surprised if a reader emerged sympathising with John at the end.
This is an intensely emotional psychological drama, which when given the benefit of imaginative interpretations, can be as real as your eyes reading this review, or as unreal as a graphic dream in which you dream of reading this review. Either way, you'd have a remarkable book by a remarkably talented writer.
True, the plot of Carry Me Down is nothing to write home about. It reads like Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time II, but with the somewhat contrived eventfulness of Haddon's novel replaced by the barren, bleak tale of a troubled boy in 1970s Ireland, told in his own words. But it's touching and beautifully written, and may well have been robbed of the Booker prize - I'd recommend this over the offerings from Kiran Desai and Hisham Matar.
Carry Me Down is a very short book (there's a lot of short chapters and blank space in its 300 pages), not much happens, and it's far from totally convincing. There's hardly any mention of sexual issues or sex organs, so the central preoccupation of all pubescent boys is omitted - though we are told that John is indeed undergoing puberty. There's only one sexual scene, an implausible "gay epiphany" moment. In my opinion, this really should have been cut out. Hyland seems to be awkwardly avoiding such topics, but can you really understand a pubescent boy without considering them?
It's impressive to see J.M. Coetzee describe this as "fiction writing of the highest order" - impressive but not surprising, because Coetzee's novels are masterclasses in how to work wonders with sparse, rigidly disciplined prose, and Carry Me Down belongs in the same canon. It's like method acting - by forcing herself to write under constraints representative of those the protagonist would experience, Hyland gives us a very authentic narrative. To undergo this experiment and come back with a good novel is no small achievement, and this is what Hyland has done. I know that a real 11-year-old couldn't write or think this clearly, yet Hyland nonetheless captures something strikingly real about the experience of childhood. The confusion, the disorientation, the way events simply *happen* with no hint of any plan or script (the use of present-tense is very cleverly deployed to this end).
It's no masterpiece, but it leaves us with every reason to expect great things from Hyland in the future.
on 1 October 2006
At first, John Egan seems a normal enough twelve year-old, but as the novel develops, we are enabled to explore a rare kind of psycholgical abnormality, although it is not until near the end that this becomes really apparent. The narrative device of using the present simple tense is used by the author to take us inside the boy's mind as he observes the world around him, and although there is plenty of action, this is what the the novel is really concerned with.
John becomes obsessed with the truth or falsehood of what others are telling him, and comes to believe that he has a unique gift for detecting lies. This obsession has tragic consequences for his parents' marriage, and leads to an enthralling climax.
I enjoyed the atmosphere of Dublin and the Irish countyside created by Hyland and much of the characterization is convincing, but some of the realism is not for the over-sensitive.
on 29 December 2006
The Booker 2006 seemed to include a couple of books on each of several themes. James Robertson's The Testament of Gideon Mack and Andrew O Hagan's Be Near Me both dealt with ministers who are ultimately disgraced and ostracised by their communities. Similarly, both David Mitchell's Black Swan Green and M.J.Hyland's Carry Me Down are tales of the troubled growing up of boys.
This is pretty much all they have in common, though. While Mitchell's book seemed conventional when compared to his earlier work, its chronological narrative structure allowed the reader to fall head-first into the protagonist's life. Hyand's novel is altogether more unsettling and fractured. It follows a period of time in the life of eleven year-old John Egan, an awkwardly tall and introverted only child who starts the book off living with his parents in his paternal grandmother's house in Gorey, Co. Wexford. Ostensibly, events involve his schooldays and his family's move to Dublin, but the main subject of the story is not only external events but also the internal workings of John's mind and his sometimes fraught relationship with each of his parents and with his grandmother. John is an obsessive child with a penchant for repeatedly reading successive copies of the Guinness Book of Records. He is determined to make himself famous by exploiting what he sees as his gift for detecting lies. The irony is that his original intention of purifying his family life by exposing lies ends up leading to strife.
Hyland evokes well the introversion of an only child and the sometimes suffocating atmosphere in his home. The lightning quick mood changes that can lead to stressed parents snapping or lashing out verbally, and that plunge children into bewilderment and make them feel rejected, are deftly described. There is a vivid and disturbing account of a bully in John's school in Gorey and the tale of what happens to his only friendship is moving. Yet for all his vulnerability, John is no saint - although he wishes his classmates would show a little more tolerance and his parents would only speak the truth, he himself is repulsed by his grandmother's disgusting eating habits and is not averse to fibbing when it suits him.
Carry Me Down is a strange book. Much of it feels disjointed - numerous separate domestic incidents that don't coalesce to form a cohesive story. Many of these incidents themselves are trivial in the extreme. Yet perhaps this is the intention - the overriding sensation on reading this book is one of unease. The vile life led by empoverished Dubliners living in towerblocks in the early seventies leaks out of every page, every small domestic occurrence. And more tumultous events occur too, almost with the inevitability of a train speeding inexorably along a track. The whole is a sometimes disspiriting but always fascinating semi-voyeuristic peek into the life of an ordinary disadvantaged family and an insight into the circumstances that can trigger catastrophe. The reader is left wondering at the end whether John Egan achieves happiness or not, and the fact that we care is testament to the reality of the portrayal of this lonely boy.
on 8 May 2007
Have not read anything by a child narrator for a bit and felt that this was an original voice. It was about the child's mind unravelling but I felt that this was caused by the adults around him who made him feel powerless and out of control, and the way in which he bought the control back was fairly shocking. I found his father and grandmother very unsympathetic and created the monster!
I loved Carry Me Down. Admittedly, in being set in Ireland, having a strong story line and being narrated in simple language it pressed the right buttons for me.
The simple language - the novel is narrated by a 12 year old - should not detract from the complexity of the characters or the story line. It becomes clear from the start that John Egan, an only child, is not quite right. Whilst not being bad, he clearly has some arrogance, hypocrisy and delusions of grandeur. He has a pious and sanctimonious attitude towards others lies, whilst not seeing the need to be truthful himself. But he is still pitiable and, in some ways, quite likable.
Meanwhile, his mother, father and grandmother clearly have an uneasy relationship, both with one another and with John. The beauty of the novel is that this, viewed through the eyes of a 12 year old - looks uncomfortable without ever being clearly defined. John resents his family's failings whilst unwittingly doing his best to widen the cracks.
As the family is forced to leave Gorey and ends up in Ballymun, events start to spiral out of control - and perhaps this happens rather too quickly. John's mother might have become more desparate before John attacks her. Nevertheless, the attack is shocking and unexpected - it has huge impact. The aftereffects clearly don't sink in for John, and this translates to the reader - I never felt the bleakness facing John from which he is ultimately rescued.
With more room, the novel could have explored a number of relationships in more detail. In particular, the teacher felt like an underused device and his motives seemed a little sinister but were never pursued. But more room might have let John outstay his welcome. A balance had to be struck somewhere.
The pitch was beautiful, and painted an uncomfortably convincing portrait of an eccentric and unhappy child.
on 12 November 2008
I have had this book on my shelf for a while, and picked it up this week for the first time. I finished it in 2 days on a return very long train journey.
It is a story of a boy, that thinks he has a gift and his frustration when people doubt it. He is no 'ordinary' boy for sure, but that is more to do with his appearance.
It is also a story of relationships, between the boy and his parents, and their own relationship and issues, and I enjoyed the realistic picture the author paints of a young boy trying to understand the complicated lives of adults.
A good read, and an easy read. I have read it for what it is, a book on my shelf that needed reading, and I am glad I did, and I ignored the hype of it being shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
I would certainly recommend Carry Me Down.