Light and dark

<strong>Carry Me Down</strong>

M J Hyland <em>Canongate, 352pp, £9.99</em>

Harding writes well a

John Egan's life is dominated by unsettling contrasts. He has the physique of a man, but is only 11. His mother is frequently doting, and creates puppet shows to make him laugh, but sometimes she tells him to stop staring at her or ends a game abruptly ("I don't want to play, John. We can't be playing all the time"). His father is bookish and almost teetotal, but he is also a layabout and, on occasions, alarmingly insensitive, as when he kills some unwanted kittens in front of John by smashing their heads on the bath. The atmosphere in the Egan household continually changes from light to dark.

Owing to Egan Sr's leisured existence (he is apparently studying for the entrance exam to Trinity College, Dublin, but we know he will never go), the family lives with John's paternal grandmother at her cottage in Gorey, County Wexford. The novel, narrated by John and set in the early 1970s, describes the effect that a discordant family life has on John's mental health. As is often the case with child narrators, the prose style is too good to be truly authentic, and so we must accept that we are reading an account filtered through a more so-phisticated third party. However, the narrative viewpoint itself is faithful to John's perspective; his observations and opinions, which contain all the omissions and ignorance that one would expect, are believably those of a child, and we are left to read much into that which John elides. We can see, as he can-not until much later, that his parents' marriage is failing, and that, for all her protestations to the contrary, Granny is annoyed at having her affluent dotage invaded by dependants.

Life at the cottage soon becomes fractious, and John finds himself the butt of his parents' irritations with one another. The pressure he is under either causes or exacerbates his eccentric behaviour; he is already a gauche, lurching youth, but his propensity to be ridiculed increases dramatically when he wets himself in class. He also becomes convinced of his unique lie-detecting ability, and writes repeatedly to the Guinness Book of Records asking to be tested out. It could almost be called fortunate when his father and Granny fall out and he and his parents are forced to move to Dublin: a fresh start, at least, you might say. But there isn't much freshness in the council block they move to, where the ammoniac rasp of the lifts gives way to the smell of the rubbish chute that pervades John's tiny, overheated room. The downward journey continues.

The central, and deliberately unanswered, question of the novel is whether John's increasingly irrational behaviour is the inevitable result of mental instability or merely the pained reaction of a sensitive boy to bad parenting. The early pages crackle with John's revulsion at others, particularly other people's eating habits - he says of Granny: "She drops her shoes to the floor and the smell of nylon and sweat climbs up the table and into my chicken soup." In truth, however, the revulsion usually relates to a genuine discomfort (Granny's malodorous feet, say) rather than to phobic queasiness.

Aspects of the plot that might have helped "solve" John are left obscure. John's mother seems to suffer from a depression of her own, but we don't find out enough to confirm this. There's even a suggestion of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy in the way she constantly suggests to John that his height is abnormal. With its dislocated young narrator, references to Greek mythology (mostly voiced through John's father, who names his cat Crito) and sudden shifts from laughter to anger, Carry Me Down contains echoes of Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop. Like Carter, M J Hyland manages to convey a sense of horror even when describing everyday life. She presents us with a family in which weakness and brutality coexist, and portrays a troubled childhood with accuracy and style.