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Customer Review

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.

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