2009 Orange Prize

This is How – M.J. Hyland

 Long listed for the Orange Prize 2010

I first heard about this book last year when several people were surprised that it didn’t appear on the Booker long list. I hadn’t read any of her books and was intrigued by the praise she was getting. Unfortunately I forgot all about her until the book appeared on the Orange long list last week. I immediately reserved a copy from my local library and eagerly awaited its arrival.

This is How follows Patrick, a young man who moves into a boarding house after his fiancee breaks off their engagement. Depressed and alone he struggles to connect with the other occupations of the house and finds himself wandering around the small British sea-side town, trying to come to terms with his situation.

I read This is How in a single sitting. The clarity of the words was amazing – the descriptions so vivid that I could almost imagine I was there. I was immediately sucked into Patrick’s world, feeling all of his intense emotions. The plot flowed along at a steady pace and I was never tempted to put it down.

What could possibly go wrong with a book so well written? I find it hard to explain without giving things away, but this book made me see why Orange judge Daisy Goodwin might have had reason to complain about the misery present in books. The second half of this book was very depressing. I don’t mind a bit of tragedy, but I do like there to be at least a shred of hope at the end of a book and this one just slipped further and further into misery.

This leaves me with a problem. Can I recommend a book that is beautifully written, but bleak and without hope? I’m not sure.

I’ll let you decide whether or not you want to read it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Have you read This is How?

Do you think it will make it onto the Orange short list?


57 replies on “This is How – M.J. Hyland”

I am very very much looking forward to reading this, in particular in light of Daisy Goodwin’s remarks. I am one of those who took a certain amount of umbrage at her remarks (not too much – I don’t really do umbrage). I am a huge believer in the importance of art reaching into the darkest places and shedding light on them. For those living in darkness, it is often only the unremittingly bleak that can be seen as an adequate mirror to their own situation and, as a result, as potentially offering hope – if in no other respect, then in feeling understood or not alone (which can be the greatest hope of all). Offering even a glimmer can, for some readers, create an alienation from the work.

Dan, I take your point, but I like to see a bit of hope. If someone is in a similar position wouldn’t they like to see that things have potential to improve too?

You would think so, but strangely enough the answer is by no menas always. I was speaking last month at a conference on the media portrayal of mental health, and one of the things that emerged most strongly from it was that people were frustrated by the number of “survivor” stories – they didn’t want to hear just from people who had come out the other side, but from those who were still struggling and had no idea whether they would emerge or not. Because people’s situation feels hopeless, stories that portray survival were seen as alienating and unreal – “what’s that got to do with me?”. They wanted to know that others were going through what they were going through, and that it was OK to feel as if there was no hope – however strange this appears from the outside, the message was very clear that, for these people at least, such characterisations were much more positive than those where people had pulled through. I’m lucky enough not to be in a low phase like this at the moment, but I have been, and my memory is that I felt like this as well.

I should point out that my books totally undermine this and – the last four I’ve written – take characters who are awkward and a little unloveable, and show that there is a place in the world for them.

Dan, That is interesting. I think I’d always like to read about people who have battled against their problems and succeeded, but perhaps that is because I am an optimistic person.

Perhaps pessimistic people enjoy this sort of thing – I hadn’t really considered that before, so thank you for drawing it to my attention.

Can you recommend a book that is beautifully written, but bleak and without hope? Well, you recommend A Fine Balance and that has to be one of the bleakest books ever written! I loved it though. I also love depressing and bleak reads, in moderation. I have a copy of this from the library and I hope that I can read it in a single sitting too.

Claire, A Fine Balance has a lot of hope at the end – all the characters that are still alive are happy, despite the horrors they have lived through. A Fine Balance shows that you can enjoy life even if you have nothing. Those two books are very different, but I look forward to your thoughts on This is How. I hope you enjoy it.

Did we read the same book?! A Fine Balance was devastating and, sure, they are alive but if the only thing we can say about hope being alive is that they still had life then that really is a bleak set of affairs; I don’t think they were happy, not after what they had gone through – they were going through the motions.


From the last paragraph of A Fine Balance:

Dina shut the door, shaking her head. Those two made her laugh every day.

If you read the last chapter you will see that they are all really happy!

Hm, all I remember from reading A Fine Balance (including the final chapter as I read that when I read a book) is an overwhelming sense of heartbreak. In my first comment I did say that I loved the book, because I do, but I didn’t think it was a cheery, hopeful ending. They may be happy with their lot but I don’t think Mistry was saying that all’s well that ends well, he was conveying that people live in abject circumstances just like the ones described and that isn’t hopeful in my eyes, it is bleak, devastating, shocking and heartbreaking.

Claire, The reason I mention the last chapter is because it is so short. I was so shocked from reading the last-but-one chapter that I don’t think I really noticed the happiness in the final page until I re-read the book.

I agree with you on the heart breaking nature of it all. I think I’d find it almost impossible to remain happy if I had experienced what they had, but it does show that as long as you have friendship and freedom from fear than you can achieve happiness.

Verity, I think it is the book with the best writing I’ve read so far this year, but the depressive nature means that it doesn’t get onto my list of favourite reads. Glad to hear we agree on this one though.

Can you recommend a book that is beautifully written, but bleak and without hope? Course you can.

If every book was happy at the end then reading wouldnt be so interesting and its the endings that are bleak that sometimes can give people a much needed jolt into how lucky they are to have the lives they have. I think if every book was happy there would be no diversity in peoples reading. I don’t want every book I read to be depressing but nor do I always want it to be easy or end like a fairy tale.

This book arrived last week and am very much looking forward to reading it!

Simon, I don’t mind the occasional sad ending, but the whole second half of this book was so depressing. It does help me to realise how lucky I am, but I’m not sure I’d ever recommend something like this to someone else – I wouldn’t want to be responsible for making someone sad, which this book is certain to do. I look forward to your thoughts on it though.

This one is still lurking in my library pile.

Seaside towns can be horribly bleak. Something to do with them being almost invariably at the end of lines, and the contrast between summers with the town full and winter with so many people gone away and places closed.

So hopefully I will recognise elements of the scenario, and I generally can deal with a lack of hope, so long as the book has something to say.

FleurFisher, A seaside town is the perfect location for a bleak book. M.J Hyland has certainly thought it all through properly – every element is perfectly selected for added depression!

I’m really looking forward to reading this one (and all the Orange longlist), but I do appreciate the warning. I seem to be in a spell of movies and books surprising me with gruesome turns, albeit some are more expected than others. Knowing the language is beautiful and you read it in a single sitting are still pretty strong recommendations, despite your other reservation. Thank you!

Yikes! That is a tough call. I’m about 80 pages from finishing Kevin, and I am PRAYING for a sliver of light at the end. It just is making my heart sick at this point. I know, me the lover of WWII novels. You’d think I was tough enough to handle it. So the idea of a well-written but bleak book makes me want to cry. I would have to heal myself before I tackled something like that!

Sandy, My lips are sealed about the ending of Kevin 🙂
I think the good thing about WWII is that at least you know the war ends! Some of the people die, but you know the ones that survive will go on to have a reasonably good life. I think you might want to avoid this one.

Well, I went right out and bought this book shortly after the Orange Prize long list was announced…and I still want to read it despite its bleakness! I thought Dan’s comments were really interesting…and I understand his points. Although I think most people do want to see some hope for the characters they’ve grown to love or empathize with…

Wendy, It is interesting that this one jumped out at you too. As soon as I saw the Orange list I knew I had to read this one – possibly because it was one of the few I’d heard of!

Nowadays, everyone just seem to judge a book by its cover. It doesn’t matter whether the book is depressing, heartbreaking, humorous and etc! Its about how you enjoy the book that’s important.

Anyway, despite its bleakness and the depressing elements of this book, I’m still going to read this book no matter what! Plus, I’m keeping my fingers cross that this book will make it to this years’ shortlist.

Well, you know that I gladly read books that are bleak and without hope, so I happily accept the recommendation! I don’t think I had heard much about this one prior to your review, so I’m going to keep my eyes out for it now!

I was debating picking this one up after I got it out from the library, but your “read it in one sitting” remark has swayed me towards picking it up for sure. Thanks!

It is always hard to know how to recommend books like this. I guess you just have to be honest (as you have been) about the tough subject matter and let readers decide for themselves. Sometimes when I am reviewing a book like this one I have to catch myself before I write that I “enjoyed” it since it gives the wrong impression.

I loved this book and I met M.J. Hyland last year which was excellent and I got her to sign my book. The book is grim, yes, but in the circumstances of Patrick and his personality, I think it would have been a bit of a cop out to give it a happy-ish ending. Having said that, I do feel intensely sorry for Patrick (is that wrong?) and empathise with him and his awkwardness. Some people never receive their happy ending or that glimmer of hope in life and I like how some books reflect that.

Mae, It must have been great to hear the author talk – I’d love to know what she said about it.

I felt sympathy for Patrick too – don’t worry it isn’t just you! I think it shows a real talent for an author to make us feel that way after what he did.

It was a great experience hearing M.J. Hyland talk. I blogged about it though not extensively. Here’s the link ( if you’re interested. I don’t want to promote my site in your replies so feel free to delete this after you’ve read it. 🙂

I think it’s because I can relate to social awkwardness and outsiders. I feel the same sympathy towards Meursault in Albert Camus’ ‘The Outsider’ too and think he is somewhat heroic in his own way although I don’t condone him murdering of course.

I don’t do well written but bleak without hope books. Life is just too short to be upset by works of fiction. There is way too much depressing stuff in real life so adding to the misery of reality isn’t for me. Having said that I do get Dan Holloway’s point and think there is a lot to be said for sheding light on the darkness of depression by talking about it honestly, especially for those who are struggling through it.
Thanks for another thought provoking review, Jackie.

Kim, I take your point, but I do occasionally like to read these bleak books. Perhaps because I know it is fiction I can handle it more, whereas real life sadness on the news has a really big effect on me.

You’ve sufficiently piqued my curiosity to go and order the book! I don’t mind dark, or even bleak (though glimmers of hope are nice) books, especially if they reflect reality. And I agree with Mae that sometimes people don’t get that happy ending and why shouldn’t an author tell that story. In any case I have to find out what happens in this story.

I haven’t read this book, but I know what you mean about well written but depressing books. I think good writing can be enough to attract me to a book with a lot of misery, but I really have to be in the right frame of mind to tackle a book like that.

Alyce, I agree – I can’t read books like this whenever I feel like it – luckily I found an appropriate moment and ensured I read something a bit happier afterwards!

Thanks for your honest review. It is very difficult isn’t it, I do like a book to have a glimmer of hope in but if it really is beautifully written then maybe the odd depressing book every now and again is worth it.

Dot, It would be nice if someone as skilled as her could write a happy book. but I suppose we can only admire what she has written and hope her next one is less depressing.

I have this book for review actually and I plan on reading it in the very near future. I’m not too thrilled to hear that it has no hope, but we’ll see how I feel about it regardless. I don’t usually mind THAT much because sometimes life is like that, but it’s good to know the book has merit otherwise.

Hmm, since you gave it four stars, I think that I might consider this. I will check it out. Thanks for your great review! You made me really curious about this book!

I really do want to read this one because I think this author is brilliant but your review and reading of this one has confirmed why I have stayed away from it so far – I thought it would be too depressing! I do sometimes seek ‘reality’ and realism in my reading but for the most part my fiction reading is for purely pleasure – I don’t want to be depressed if I don’t have to be! I think that is one reason why I recently enjoyed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand so much – it was a very well written book that addressed some major issues but there was humour and hope thrown in the mix as well.

Karen, I have heard wonderful things about Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. I haven’t read any of Hyland’s other books, but will make sure I read some more soon.

I know what you mean … I felt that way about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” It was so depressing that you don’t really want to recommend it but it is worth reading anyway.

Jenners, I still haven’t read The Road. I own a copy and really want to read it, but the depressive nature does put me off – perhaps I’ll get to it next month.

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