Children often experience the world unfiltered. Their reactions to it can be mismatched, but they can also be honest and true: free from expectations, assumptions, and unconscious influences and gossip. Children tell lies from an early age, around three, but they usually don’t recognise lies in others until much later, usually due to an existential crisis: the destruction of childhood myths: the Tooth Fairy, Santa Clause, and the Easter Bunny.
John Egan, the 11 year old narrator of M. J. Hyland’s Carry me Down (2006) has just discovered he has a unique talent: he can recognise lies. He has physical reactions to them: vomiting, burning ears and he keeps a diary called the Gol of Seil. He is tall for his age and has an uncommon attachment to the Guiness Book of Records – maybe he can get into it with his lie-detecting ability – and a not-so-uncommon attachment to his mother. He stares at her too much. He lives with his parents, Michael (Da) and Helen (Mammy), his paternal grandmother (Granny), and a cat called Crito. But something is amiss in this cottage in southern Ireland.
The writing, in the present tense, is sparse and the syntax simple. Statements are bold and John notices the slightest detail.
She slurps her tea and smiles at me. She sticks her tongue out to greet the cup before each sip and, after she sips her tea, she smiles at me. There is only her slurping, and so much silence between us that, when a lorry passes, I am grateful for the noise and the distraction.
It becomes clear that the world and the people in it that John describes is distorted. John is not a reliable narrator; but then what 11 year old is? The reader needs to read between his lines to interpret what is really going on. This is one of the unexpected joys of this book.
Although John is an excellent lie-detector he self-justifiably becomes very good at telling lies himself until the contortions he puts himself through to balance the lies he hears and the lies he tells threaten to unseat his mind.
There is an ever-increasing feeling of unease. John hears later about the confrontation between Da and Granny which causes her to kick her son and family out: John and his parents move to Dublin into a bleak tenement where graffiti splatters every available surface and children defecate in the lifts.
But John’s discovery of another lie and subsequent truth splits the family. What almost unhinges the boy is that it was the truth that did the damage, not the lie. And the damage proves almost fatal. No spoilers here.
Slap-dash parenting of a willful and sensitive child can have devastating effects. The three adults, however, come to their senses, of sorts, and there is a feeling of a disaster averted, a life pulled back from the edge. However the final image is one of male friendship in a toy-like place where two men seek comfort in the domestic: rest in a warm place with tea to drink and toast and cakes to eat.
And the fire inside will warm their hands and faces. The door is open.
The ending is enigmatic but creates a feeling of the unknown; John may get another chance to be the grown-up he deserves. As with all teenagers, the door is open … although not for long.
M. J. Hyland has only written three novels and a small collection of short stories. I’m on a search for her first, How The Light Gets In, (2004) and latest, This is How (2009). A fourth book, Even Pretty Eyes, rumoured to have been released in August this year is now due for release, according to Amazon, in 2022. Her health may have something to do with the delay.
Here is her essay, Hardly Animal, which she wrote in response to being diagnosed, in 2008, with multiple sclerosis.
A short story, Even Pretty Eyes Commit Crimes, was shortlisted for 2012 BBC International Short Story Award. You can read it here.
M. J. Hyland answers a question: can writing be taught?
You can purchase M. J. Hyland’s books here. I urge you to read any of this writer’s work.