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issue 56:November - December 2006

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Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland:   Canongate Books, 2006

John Egan is going to be twelve in July. The fact he reminds people of this suggests he is more than ready to leave the soft cocoon of childhood, but the reality is that he is finding the transition difficult and somewhat baffling. His family life appears almost dull; the parents, Helen and Michael, seem loving and doting, without a trace of the fighting and drinking of the Irish family stereotype. But there are undercurrents of tension in the apparent calm. Michael is unemployed and apparently studying to get into university; to survive they are all living with his mother, and the thorny subject of money is never far away. Another ripple that spreads unease is John's size. He is very tall for his age and this worries his mother, who is now wary of sharing her bed with her son or cuddling him; and it must also worry his fellow school-goers as he is mostly shunned and has only one friend. This leaves John a bit of a loner, happy with his own company or stuck in a book, which is usually the Guinness Book of World Records. It is dad's strange idea that drowning some kittens will help his son become a man that leads John into the confusing world of lies. A strange obsession begins to take hold with him: recording every lie told to him in a secret notebook.   Soon John is convinced he will be famous, and in the Guinness book, for being a human lie-detector. As he lays bare the lies of others, whilst hypocritically hiding behind his own, cracks are sure to appear in the seemingly tranquil environment.

John is our narrator and though what he reports is full of detail, he is nonetheless unreliable. He is simply too young to explain why his mother is always tired and in bed. For him, his mother's lounging around is purely a lovely excuse to curl up beside her. His father's mood swings are mentioned along with the fact that he sleeps on the floor for which John accepts Gran's explanation that Michael has a bad back. His parents' marital ups and downs are carried out behind doors closed to John's understanding, and in one case, when a chair is used to block his entrance, literally. The reader can only guess at the reality. The only thing that seems certain, with Helen's lethargy, Michael's head constantly in a book and John stewing in his own juices, is that the Egan family has lost a sense of motivation or direction.

We see the world through John's 11-year-old mindset and through his words. Even though he is bright and well-read, there are no flights of literary fancy here; this is mundane day-to-day detail of every biscuit or sandwich or cup of tea drunk or eaten. This is about whatever record-breaker John is interested in. The reader is unsure what direction the novel will take as through the white noise of domesticity come little blips of a hidden plotline—incest? bullying? paedophilia? homosexuality? John, our unreliable narrator, ploughs on, stuck in his own little world, oblivious to the dangers around, and what on first sight seems a slow, nothing-going-on read unexpectedly turns into a page-turner with the ‘unsaid' building to an incredible tension which finally explodes in a dramatic turn of events. A brilliant, exceptionally well-crafted book which was deservedly short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize. MGS

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The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette:    Serpent's Tail, 2006.
Translation by James Brook.

The 1981 French original apparently broke the stagnant stranglehold which the likes of Maigret had on French crime fiction, and by doing so helped nudge the genre more into the field of literature, as evidenced by City Lights publishing this translation in the US in 2002 and now Serpent's Tail in 2006.

Lovers of noir, pulp fiction and the crime novel might at first be a little baffled by what all the fuss is about. The painfully short sentences echo James Ellroy but without the (sometimes annoying) alliterative beat. Attention to detail is only reserved to boys' toys like car and gun model, make and number, along the lines of, say, American Psycho . Then there is the simple plot line of an assassin wanting to retire young and settle down with a childhood sweetheart; therefore, being chased by those either seeking revenge or wanting him to return to the fold for one last hit. Nothing new here but at the end of the novel, a mere 155 pages, the reader feels a strange sensation that they have just read the greatest example of ‘show, don't tell' ever written, ironically made greater by the fact there is some blatant telling. We are told early on that protagonist Martin Terrier is stupid— “. . .tall, strong, stupid, and calculating. His calculations weren't intelligent, either” —but we simply don't see it initially as we are swept along by his brutal, cool efficiency, which also helps us to forget that the male in any noir is basically naïve in the first place.

Right from the start Terrier is painted as a heartless bastard; and, as there seems to be no other protagonists around for the reader to get behind or root for, his flashes of stupidity are therefore a blessing in disguise as they at least mean there is a glimmer of a human being in there, somewhere. In the end Terrier meets a horrible fate, a fate no spy or assassin or cop would want to suffer, and one to which even the bemused reader might mutter ‘Poor Martin.'

Although short sharp sentences work well in English, translator James Brook still had his work cut out. Regularly the usual ‘he', ‘his' or ‘him' is replaced with ‘the man'; quite why the author wanted it that way, I don't know, but I can imagine Brook gagging to change it. My one and only quibble is his questionable use of the dated word ‘rocker' for some young hoodlums.  

It has taken over twenty years for this book to travel the same amount of miles from France to the UK. In that time UK and US crime fiction has jumped by leaps and bounds, yet this slim novel still holds its own. It is not only more complex than it looks—and therefore offers some interesting pointers for future writers—it stands the test of time, and deserves a place in an afficiado's bookcase by being just so darned cool. MGS

© 2006 The Barcelona Review
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Issue 55: September- October 2006  

f i c t i o n

Bernard MacLaverty: A Trusted Neighbour
Laura Hird: Victims
Mike Lubow: Phil in the Elevator

picks from back issues
tbr christmas stories

Deirdre Heddon: Still Life
Laura Hird: The Happening
Mark Anthony Jarman: Cougar


Bernard MacLaverty by Dave Fernandes


American Literature and Culture of the 1970s
Answer to last issue's quiz, Chaucer

book reviews

Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland
The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette; translated by James Brook

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