Solitary young man descends into a prison of his own making in this bleak tale from Booker-nominated Hyland (Carry Me Down, 2006, etc.).
Protagonist and narrator Patrick Oxtoby, 23, is a failed university student who has recently been dumped by his fiancée Sarah and subsequently moved to a lonely seacoast village. Only partially registering the life around him, Patrick finds lodgings at a young widow’s boarding house and parlays his almost instinctive mechanical skills into a job at an auto-body shop. But he never frees himself from inchoate memories of a troubled childhood and some unspecified emotional trauma suffered as a teenager. He finds little solace in promised intimacy with an attractive waitress and keeps his distance from the abrasive camaraderie of fellow male boarders. Then, without ever quite knowing why, Patrick commits a brutally violent act; he is immediately apprehended and imprisoned pending trial. The novel’s second half details his withdrawal from (predictable) threats lurking in his new environment, as Patrick tries and fails to make his stunned parents, a compassionate doctor and the sexual predators around every corner in jail understand him better than he understands himself. Hyland brilliantly creates and sustains a mood of unrelieved bafflement and tension. But she neglects to make Patrick sympathetic, or even credible. The idea of an unexplained, perhaps inexplicable crime recalls The Stranger, but this redundant and slow-moving tale lacks its predecessor’s introspective richness. Two wonderful segments—Patrick’s plaintive letter begging his parents to visit, and an unexpected meeting with the elderly couple whose lives he has ruined—amount, alas, to too little too late.
A disappointment, though by no means an indication of diminished skill, range or seriousness; this gifted Irish writer will find a way to do better next time.