Saturday, July 4, 2009

M.J. Hyland and Colm Toibin - two new novels

Firstly a note to M.J.Hyland. The 'MJ' is a huge mistake - an awful marketing mistake and an unfortunate literary one as well.

Your name is Maria, one of the most beautiful first names in Christendom, and you should use it. You are not Mary-Jo from Louisiana. From your photographs you are also a beautiful woman physically. Why shrink away from that? Deliberately remaining nebulous and abstracted behind an indeterminate persona is no way to relate to your readers, much less attract new ones, and it is not a gesture of any significance. Authors are located in an historical place and time, a time swirling with the ideas and tensions of a particular social context, and for critical purposes key things about them should be disclosed. Being up front about your sexuality in today's world is a matter of integrity and honesty with your audience. The George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) days are gone. Even T. S. Eliot would present himself today as Thomas Stearns Eliot if he had any sense, which he had in spades. It's a weighty and resonant moniker, impactful. These things are important.

This Is How is Maria Hyland's third novel, and so far the only one of her's I've read. Frankly, I expected much more, given the pretty positive reviews. It's a prison narrative, even a prison procedural, and certainly not very original or insightful on that score. As a psychological portrait of a delusional young man with anger management problems who ends up murdering a recent acquaintance..well, it's just OK. All the usual cliches are there - unhappy childhood, distant father, smothering mother, university dropout, girlfriend leaves him, etc. The prison part makes up half the book and here again the cliches rule - vicious lags, sexual advances and threats, corrupt guards, bashings, rotten food, hopelessness, etc. The novel doesn't so much end as fade away, as it's got nowhere to go -much like the prisoner I guess. A disappointing read.

For a novel that really gets inside the mind and social context of a young person, and builds a narrative of incredible power and resonance, and one that simply won't let you go for days and nights after you've finished it, then read the Irish novelist Colm Toibin's latest, Brooklyn. Like his previous novel The Master, this is a magnificent achievement. The final, life-changing decision that the young female protagonist takes - praised by most reviewers for its rectitude and honor, but utterly wrong in my view for its cowardice and immaturity - is gut-wrenching.

Buy Brooklyn, read it and debate it and tell me I'm wrong.