Carry Me Down, by M J Hyland

Dry wit and sticky moments of an Irish childhood
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The Independent Culture

This is a novel about family friction. John Egan, an overgrown 11-year-old, lives in his grandmother's cottage near Gorey, Co. Wexford, with his mother, father and his father's mother. John's favourite reading is The Guinness Book of Records, and he cherishes an ambition to feature in his work himself on account of an unusual ability he believes he possesses. He is a human lie-detector, whose ears tingle and whose stomach churns whenever someone tries to palm him off with an untruth. He has quite a lot of scope to exercise this gift, since the adults around him are not invariable truth-tellers. Lying and other forms of dishonesty, though, are not peculiar to grown-ups. John himself isn't above indulging in a spot of petty larcency from time to time.

The Egans are an odd family. They are all very tall. John's mother is a puppet-maker and his father, a one-time electrician, is studying with a view to enrolling for a degree course in criminal psychology at Trinity College Dublin. The grandmother, not entirely happy about the invasion of her home, spends a lot of time attending horse races at Leopardstown.

John is at the same time severely critical of his parents and mightily attached to them, and the whole family is subject to lightning changes of mood, which makes for an unsettling atmosphere. This atmosphere is not conducive to steady emotional development. One might go so far as to call John retarded in some areas - though advanced in others.

At Gorey National School John has made only one friend, Brendan, and he loses this friend after an "experiment" goes wrong and he wets the classroom floor, to the disgust and taunts of his classmates. He was only trying to break a urine-retaining record. But one of John's characteristics is an inability to envisage the consequences of his actions, and this culminates in a melodramatic incident involving an ambulance and a number of Gardai.

By this stage the family has moved to Dublin, where the only accommodation available is in a high-rise block in Ballymun, with the stink of rubbish in their noses and gangs of youths assembling for no good purpose in the stairwell. In these dispiriting surroundings, the combined forces of domestic uncertainty and personal peculiarity engender a bitter outcome. The events of these crucial months in the lives of the Egan family are narrated by M J Hyland's protagonist, John; and the impersonation of a pre-adolescent's preoccupations is effective and, at times, funny. At other times a kind of low-intensity frustration and dissatisfaction saturates the narrative, to lowering effect. And occasionally an emblem occurs whose meaning is obscure. However, as a record of country-school bleakness, home unpredictability and city grimness, Carry Me Down can be said to carry the day.

Patricia Craig's biography of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury