At the beginning of This is How, Patrick Oxtoby arrives at a boarding house. The landlady wants to hang up his coat. He’d prefer to leave it on. When he finally takes it off and puts it on the rack, it falls off. Neither of them pick it up.
This is how life is for Patrick Oxtoby. This is how he becomes caught up in something unexpectedly violent: through awkwardness, indecision, a slippery stubbornness, and acting on instinct – dealing moment to moment with the consequences of emotion and subsequent action.
The opening sequence leaves you immediately uneasy, prickly. The story is in first person, in present tense, and Hyland moves you to sweaty hands, a frown, a tense neck, confused empathy and nervousness with and for Patrick.
Patrick is in this seaside town because his fiancée has broken up with him. He starts his new job as a mechanic (something he decided on after finding university overwhelming), he flirts with the waitress at the local café, he craves alcohol, he resents a visit from his mother while simultaneously needing her, and sometimes he makes efforts to get to know his fellow boarders. Mostly he avoids them uneasily.
But, to tell you too much of the plot would be to ruin the unexpected turn this takes, for its second-half. I will instead persuade and encourage you to pick up and read the first few pages. If you get in, you’ll be lost and nervous and opened by this haunting character and narrative all the way through.
The rendering of tiny details in this book do act to create a world but they also add to the unease. Because it’s in first person, Patrick noticing a swinging phone cord, or a pair of red shoes – is a vivid statement of his mind, its fragments and distractions – what gets in and remains with him.
In much the same way as with Camus’ L’Étranger (or The Outsider), once you’ve put down This is How you want to go outside and find out what shape and colour the moon is, or hug a friend, or call your mum, or inhale the clean scent of your sheets, or eat something warm and salty and filling. And then, you reflect on all those funny feelings of annoyance, reluctance, or unease that come even when in comfort. And you wonder what would become important to you, and what you would remember, if you slipped up, and those comforts were no longer available.