M.J. Hyland’s Carry Me Down
Claustrophobia n. a morbid dread of confined places.
What is it about the cramped spaces of our lives that frightens us? We do not always fear what is dark and closed off. Confinement can mean safety – the womb we wish to return to, the burrow we long to hide away in, the bomb shelter. Why is it that we seek out these spaces even as we fear being closed in in others? What distinguishes a haven from a trap? Perhaps it is the possibility of escape, the knowledge that there is a way out. As long as the door is open we are content to live cooped up in our small existence – it is only when we realise we cannot leave that the walls begin to close in on us, the shades of the prison house grow stronger.
It is this distinction that lies at the heart of M.J. Hyland’s dark and unsettling new novel. Carry Me Down is a story not so much about the loss of innocence as about the act of clinging desperately to it. In a world without hope, Hyland suggests, delusion is a survival strategy, and the worst enemy is truth. Yet the line between escapism and madness is a thin one, so that sanity, in our desperate times, is a tight-rope walk between the despair of realism and the dementia of fantasy. It is a line we all walk more or less successfully; it is a balance we are all in perpetual danger of getting wrong.
Imagine then the plight of a child learning this balancing trick for the first time. Imagine how easy it would be for him to get it wrong. This is precisely what Hyland’s novel does, and does brilliantly. The child in question is John Egan, an eleven year old growing up in rural Ireland. John is awkwardness personified – exceptionally tall for his age, he is a strange mix of childish naivete and adolescent indignation. As his father puts it, he is “an odd mixture…of little boy and a grown lad”. He is a boy who doesn’t fit in – his unusual height becoming an embodiment of his larger lack of adjustment. He has virtually no friends, and spends his time isolated at home, reading the Guinness Book of World Records and day-dreaming about trips to Niagara Falls.
As the novel opens, John discovers his ‘gift’ for lie-detection – he believes that he has the ability to tell when someone is lying – and this belief becomes the basis for an elaborate fantasy of future fame and fortune. This is no schoolboy whim, however. Deprived of company his own age, struggling to deal with a world where adult attitudes seem increasingly inexplicable, John gradually allows the lie-detector fantasy to take over his entire life, allows it to cross over the line between harmless daydream and dangerous obsession.
What John is really experiencing, of course, is a magnified version of what we have all gone through. The knowledge that the world is neither as simple nor as happy as we have believed it to be, that as children, many unpleasant things have been deliberately kept from us, that the adults we love and admire are frequently duplicitious and often self-delusional, that behind the picture-book surface of our lives lurks a web of suspicion and deceit, of half-truths and evasions, of things better left unsaid or unexplored. This is the universal fabric of life – it is only through this veil of illusion that we can bear to look upon reality.
John, of course, does not see it that way. Entirely dependent on his family emotionally, he takes the discovery of their duplicity as a betrayal – a betrayal that comes packaged with the ordinary realisation that our parents are not superhuman. (“You’re stupid. I didn’t know you were so stupid” John says to his mother). His lie-detection ‘ability’ thus becomes, ironically, a way to hide from the depth of his parent’s betrayal, as well as a way to gain control over it. It’s not just that the sense of achievement John feels when he detects a lie makes up for the disappointment of being lied to, it also means that any lie John’s subconsciousness does not dare acknowledge can easily be passed off as the truth, because, after all, if it were a lie, he would be able to tell. By believing in his own super powers, John has thus done away with doubt. This means that he need only deal with the little lies that he can safely handle – can acknowledge, for instance, that his father buys birthday cards in batches, but not that his father is an unemployed loser who has spent three years sponging off his mother (John’s grandmother) and whose much discussed plans to go to college are little more than pipe dreams.
As the novel progresses, John’s life will grow more and more difficult. His unpopularity at school will grow, and an eventual rift between his father and his grandmother  will send his family scurrying off to Dublin, to live more or less in penury. As John’s troubles mount, so, proportionately does the seriousness of his dementia, until his queer mix of obsessive truth-seeking and complete lack of self-reflection will drive him and his family over the brink of disaster. The last fifty pages of this novel are a descent into a horrifying and squalid madness, and make it one of the most disturbing books of the year.
Hyland’s genius here is that she manages to evoke John’s perspective exceptionally well, placing us quite literally inside his confused mind and letting us see the world through his obscured and delusional eyes. In pulling off this feat, Hyland does two things at once: on the one hand, she conveys a deep sense of disquiet, blending moments of happy domesticity with scenes of shocking violence, and throwing in the odd unsettling episode or two, all to give the novel a dissonant, uneasy feel, that mirrors perfectly the nervousness in John’s head. At the same time, Hyland successfully conceals the magnitude of John’s disturbed state, so that for the longest time this sense of unease never blossoms into anything concrete, and we are lulled into sharing John’s false sense of normalcy. It is this that makes the denouement shocking; when the reality of John’s situation is finally revealed, we find ourselves accomplices in his delusion, fellow conspirators in the lies he has been telling himself. We have been inside his head all this time, yet we didn’t notice anything wrong. That, more than anything else, is what makes this a horrifying book.
Not that there aren’t things about the book that seem unconvincing. John, for instance, shows many, if not all, of the signs of adolescence, except a strong sex drive. Despite the wealth of oedipal moments in the book, John’s only real acknowledgement of sexual feelings comes in an early chapter which seems to fit badly with the overall plan of the book. Whether this is because John is repressing his sexual instincts and therefore keeping them from showing up in the book, or simply a failing on Hyland’s part is not clear (One of the most difficult, and exhilerating, things about the novel is that after you discover the ‘truth’ about John, you find yourself questioning how much of the rest of his account is true – what has he left out? What has he made up?), but it strikes something of a false note. Similarly, one would have wished for a deeper exploration of the other characters in the novel- particularly John’s father. Overall, though, Hyland does a marvellous job of making you see the world through John’s eyes, and that’s what gives this book an authentic quality that, for instance, its fellow longlist contender David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, lacks.
Carry Me Down is a book it is almost impossible to like. It is much too unsettling, much too suffocating for that, its claustrophobic atmosphere generated by the fact that we know there is no escape for John, no matter what he imagines. By the same token, though, it is a book that one cannot help admire, if only for the calm, unfussy way in which Hyland slowly sucks the air out of the novel, leaving us with a book that will leave one gasping for hope, and finding none.
 It’s interesting how the plot of Carry Me Down parallels, in some rather unexpected ways, Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk. Both novels feature fathers locked in a battle over inheritance with grandmothers, both include scenes where the father’s position in his wife’s bed is usurped from his son. They are vastly different novels of course – St Aubyn’s sparkling book being as much in Major key as Carry Me Down is in minor, but that only makes the similarities more surprising.