Mistress of the Telling Detail, M. J. Hyland

“How the Light Gets In” by M. J. Hyland
“Carry Me Down” by M. J. Hyland

Occasionally I will read an author for whom I have a special affinity. This special affinity means that I must read all of their books, because they are speaking directly to me. Over the years, this has happened to me with such authors as Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Elizabeth Taylor, William Boyd, Rosamond Lehmann, Jennifer Johnston, and Ian MacEwan. Later examples of authors for which I have had this special affinity are Patrick White, Angela Huth, Amelie Nothomb, Graham Greene, and Sebastian Barry. When this special affinity occurs, I no longer have any choice on whether or not I am going to read their books. I am going to read their books. The latest author for whom I have this special affinity is “the mistress of the telling detail”, M. J Hyland.

So far I have read two books by M.(Maria) J.(Jean) Hyland, “How the Light Gets In” and “Carry Me Down”. But I knew after reading less than 100 pages of the first novel that this was a writer who spoke directly to me. My attraction to her writing is almost visceral, but I will attempt to explain it. Justine Jordan wrote a review of M. J. Hyland in the Guardian    MJ Hyland Review ,   she speaks of Hyland’s writing as “a narrative that seems as inevitable and arbitrary as life itself”. This is exactly the feeling I get when reading Hyland’s novels. What happens to the characters in a Hyland novel seems inevitable based on their traits, but the novel takes an arbitrary path to reach the end, just as life does itself. In “Carry Me Down”, the boy John at one point finally achieves some self confidence in school one day only to find out that his family has to move out of the school district that very night. There have been times that life has worked out like that for me too.

Hyland’s characters are not just a collection of traits the author has assigned to them; these characters are complete unique human beings who define themselves by what they do. Hyland has imagined these characters so completely that they take on a life of their own. One thing I’ve noticed about Hyland’s writing is that there is very little extraneous description in her novels. Everything centers on what actually is occurring in the scene. The scenes and the characters are so well-imagined that it is not necessary to have a lot of description.

I suppose that is why I have a special affinity for the above-listed authors, their ability to fully imagine the world of their characters and scenes.

But each of the above-listed authors is unique, and now I will attempt to describe the unique qualities that M. J. Hyland brings to her novels. “How the Light Gets In” is about a female high school student from Australia who is spending a school year as an exchange student with a suburban Chicago family. “Carry Me Down” centers around an eleven year old boy and his family who live in Ireland. Both of these novels center on a family, and Hyland excels in describing the little everyday scenes in family life which reveal the complex dynamics that go on within every family. It’s probably a little early in Hyland’s career to define her as a novelist of the family, but she certainly excels in depictions of families. Judging from the two books I’ve read, she seems to have a striking insight into the souls of young people. Another quality that Hyland brings to her writing is that she does not shy away from the disturbing aspects of family life. This gives her books a compelling tension or intensity that drives them forward. Certainly there are some very pleasant scenes of family life in her novels, but even these reveal the underlying strains among the family members. This is another example of how well-imagined Hyland’s novels are that each scene does not have only one purpose but achieve several purposes at the same time.

So M. J. Hyland deals with the disturbing aspects of family life. I remember Ian MacEwan’s early novels which were always quite macabre though highly realistic. I actually enjoyed his early grim shocking novels more than his later more well-polished novels. What I’m saying is you let great writers have their subject matter and you just watch them perform.

M. J. Hyland is another one of those writers you can’t pin down to any one country. She was born in London to Irish parents, moved to Dublin, lived extensively in Australia, spent a year in Italy, and now is back in London.

14 responses to this post.

  1. You’ve already hooked me on Nothomb and M J Hyland was already on my radar. You make a compelling case for her. I will not get to her early this year, but it is clear I will have to get to her sometime. I will look forward to more Hyland reviews over the next few months, I hope.

    Good description of how some writers get their hooks in to you quickly and deeply.


  2. Hi Kerry,
    Yes, sometimes I operate more on enthusiasm than dispassionate consideration. I really like literature, and good writers transport me to paroxysms of enthusiasm. I’m going to read “This is How” sometime this year. That should be interesting, because I’ve noted the reviews of this novel, Hyland’s newest, were somewhat mixed.
    I’m wondering if you see Virginia Woolf as a writer that you are extremely enthusiastic about, since your site is called “Hungry Like a Woolf”. I recently picked up “The Voyage Out” and plan to read it this year also. I thought it might be interesting to try early Woolf.


  3. Hey Tony.

    Yes, I am very enthusiastic about Woolf. Having said that, I still have Mrs. Dalloway (which I plan for this year) and Orlando among her major works to go, and the first three novels…and the last two. I love her short stories Kew Gardens is incredible, and I could not get enough of To the Lighthouse. After my first read, I sat stunned for a moment, then turned to page one and started over. It is the book that broke me of my personal stigma against re-reading. I absolutely love her writing.

    From this point, I am going to try to read one, and only one, Woolf a year. That will keep me going awhile, then I can start back through her novels and the complete shorter fiction (watching the progression and experimentation in her stories is great).

    Your plan with Hyland sounds good. I both like and fear when a writer I am passionate about only has a few books. It’s great to know you can read all the works, it is a little terrifying that you could run out (hence my, shall we say, deliberate pace through Woolf). All the same, I will be looking forward to your next Hyland review and will be looking to pick one of her works up (probably “How the Light Gets In” given your reaction to it).


    • Kerry,
      The nice thing about discovering a writer while they are still young like Hyland is you can wait expectantly for their next book. Funny, the only book I have read by Virginia Woolf is Mrs Dalloway.


  4. …and I really have to read this Hyland person! LOL. I’ve heard so much of her – and you and I seem to have some similar likes so that’s an added incentive. I wonder whether, given her Aussie connection, I can get my Aussie-focused group to read her. I think I’ll see.


    • Hi Whisperinggums,
      Of course, I first heard about M.J. Hyland on Kimbofo’s site. Somehow I discovered a couple of years ago that her tastes and my tastes were really in sync. I’ve noticed that you frequently visit the Kimbofo site too, so probably your tastes, my tastes, and Kimbofo’s tastes are in sync. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have our disagreements from time to time, right? That is one of the things that makes it fun. I’ll let you know when I disagree with something you say on your blog.


  5. You guys really should stop talking about me *wink, wink*

    Re: not being able to pin Hyland down to one country: she actually describes herself as an “international citizen”. She does, however, talk in an educated Australian accent. I believe she bases herself in Manchester these days…


  6. Hi Kimbofo,
    Thanks for stopping by. We won’t be talking about you, just wanted to mention that you were the source for finding out about M.J. Hyland. Mentioning ‘international citizens’, I’m trying to figure out Michel Faber now. Last I heard, he was now living in Australia, but has many other countries on his resume.


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  8. […] Gums reviews MJ Hyland, a Tony’s Book World recommended author. If one more person writes about her, I will have to run to the bookstore […]


  9. […] chose to read this author because she is a Tony’s Book World recommended author. I chose this specific book of Ms. Hyland’s because it was a Whispering Gums recommended […]


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