Magazine article The Spectator

The Trouble with Being a Lie-Detector

Magazine article The Spectator

The Trouble with Being a Lie-Detector

Article excerpt

CARRY MEDOWN by M. J. Hyland Canongate, £9.99, pp. 256, ISBN 1841957348 . £7.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Novels narrated in the first person by dysfunctional adolescent boys are no rare thing.

Nor is there a yawning gap in the market for novels detailing the squalor and eccentricity and thwarted dreams of life in 20th-century Ireland. I opened Carry Me Down, therefore, with a sense of weariness in advance. But I found that M. J. Hyland doesn't deal in cliché.

The stock ingredients are all there -- the school bullies, the drunken uncles, the creepy teacher, the feckless father -- but the dialogue is nimble and the observations are acute. Hyland can do humour, horror and pathos all at once, as in an early scene when the show-off father fails to drown a litter of kittens. A description of the gambling grandmother slurping undercooked eggs is one of the most revolting things I've read for a long time. Hyland infuses all her details with meaning: a scab on the top of her hero's head almost becomes a character in its own right.

The hero is John Egan, 11 years old but already as tall as a man. He's the only child of handsome, unstable parents who think they are too special to get to grips with ordinary living. John's size, his loneliness and his precocious intelligence make him a borderline freak; indeed, the novel is all about borderlines, between sanity and madness, intimacy and cruelty, disaster and salvation. John's favourite reading matter is The Guinness Book of Records; he pores over statistics about giants and midgets. …

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