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Pickle Me This

June 21, 2007

Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland

I’ve written here before about my interest in young protagonists, or perhaps “my uninterest” would be a more applicable term. So many young protagnonists grate on my nerves and I’ve done my best to try to figure out why they do while others don’t, and I think M.J. Hyland’s Man Booker-Shortlisted Carry Me Down may have pointed me toward the answer.

Hyland’s young protagonist is John Egan, an eleven year old Irish boy who has suddenly found himself with a grown man’s body, and who is convinced that his ability as a human lie-detector will one day win him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. John’s parents are loving, but they have troubles of their own, and socially he is isolated at school. Similarly to Clare Allan’s Poppy Shakespeare, this is a novel written from the perspective of a mentally disturbed character. However without Allan’s agenda (which was satire, and provided some sort of guideline for interpreting said perspective), there is no choice but to trust in the character and seek the clues where they turn up.

John Egan’s perspective is so thoroughly convincing that the reader buys into his sense of reality quite easily, examining a disturbing world through his filter. In the instances where that filter becomes apparent, that world is made disturbing all the more. And it is this convincing nature which makes John Egan function so effectively as a young protagonist. That there is no space at all between his character and the narrative voice, and his eyes are all we get, and the spell never breaks.

The novel is written in the present tense, which of course adds to its immediacy. So much is withheld from John, and from his own perspective, that a kind of suspense unfolds over the most ordinary occurrences. In a related way, the extraordinary is interpreted as rather banal from his point of view, particulary at the novel’s climax, and the true extent of John’s troubles become especially clear. The book reads quickly; there is a sense of unfolding, although into what I was never entirely sure. As a whole, the structure of the novel is not perfect, though I don’t see how a novel from John’s point of view ever could be. But it was that point of view, I thought, which made the novel worth it anyway. It works as a character study and as a story that stands up in its own right.

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