I’ve knocked off a lot of good books over the last couple of weeks including David Cohen’s Disappearing off the face of the earth, Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. Despite this competition, I expected How The Light Gets In to be the star and I have not been disappointed.
Like Gail Jones’ Black Mirror, it’s a first novel by an Australian. The similarities stop there. How the Light Gets In is a perfect novel. Utterly gripping, with a creepy flawed main character who nonetheless engages our sympathies from the start and never loses them, it must be right up there with best first novels ever. It’d make a great movie.
Note: surprisingly the author is writing from experience.
Drama of a life less ordinary
By Brigid Delaney
July 19 2003
“I’ve never experienced writer’s block. When it’s going really well my body temperature goes up and I’m flushed. I get quite delirious.”
“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood,” wrote Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes.
Melbourne writer M.J. (Maria) Hyland had a childhood that makes Frank McCourt’s seem lucky. But she says it “is not very interesting” and would prefer to talk about her debut novel, How the Light Gets In. So we steer clear of her early years – for a while.
Set in middle America, How the Light Gets In follows the fortunes of Louise Connor, a genius 16-year-old with a penchant for gin, chain-smoking and Russian literature.
Raised in a housing commission flat in Sydney, she escapes the squalor and poverty of her background on an exchange student program. Her wealthy hosts struggle to understand the behaviour of their wayward charge. She is complex and difficult, captivating and infuriating.
When Hyland sent the book’s first five chapters unsolicited to Edinburgh super-publisher Jamie Byng (who discovered Yann Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi), she was an unknown Australian first-timer. After demanding the rest of the novel, Byng rang her back and said, “I want to meet Lou.”
Hyland makes it clear she is not Lou – even though she went on an exchange student program to America from which she was expelled for underage drinking. ‘I’d been drinking since I was 13,” says Hyland. “I was just a regular teenager who drank. Suddenly I was in Idaho and I couldn’t smoke, drink or hitchhike.”
It’s too easy to suggest that the book is mere autobiography, particularly when her early life contains the material for a dozen novels. Melbourne-based Hyland, 35, was born in London to Irish parents. When she was two they arrived in Australia on an assisted passage. Crippled by poverty, the family lived in “sheds, people’s backyards and caravan parks” around Liverpool and Cabramatta. Her father was “a hopeless alcoholic” and gambler who “was pissed all through my childhood”.
Unable to secure a lucky break in the lucky country, the family moved back to Ireland when she was four, and lived in a notorious Dublin housing estate where “the lifts were full of vomit and urine. It stank. It was an intensely rough place.”
New schools and new housing estates came every few years. Hyland recalls the family being “deeply impoverished”, though she enjoyed the “constant change” and “interesting people”.
It was only when she made one “really good school friend’ that she felt sad about leaving. She was 11 and it was back to Australia. The decision to return was made by her father when he came home one day – full of drink-fuelled hope and optimism – thinking this time it would work.
The boat docked at Fremantle and the family moved into a nearby migrant hostel. Hyland remembers living with “interesting people from Singapore and China”, taking a special bus into school each day with other migrant kids and having “gruel for breakfast”. Less tolerable was the heat – the kind of white, blinding heat peculiar to Western Australia that the pale Irish girl instantly loathed.
The family moved frequently in Fremantle before her father, on another bender, decided to pack them in a car and drive across the Nullarbor to Melbourne. They were “homeless migrants” but for Hyland it was “all pretty normal – not alarming. I liked all the drama.”
Hyland thinks it made her a writer, although her childhood was largely without books. She reckons that she read less than a dozen books before she was 13 and those she did were “mostly Enid Blyton”.
The family stayed in Melbourne – but not together. Hyland is estranged from her brother, now back in Dublin, and she says her father recently served time for armed robbery.
“He went into a 7-Eleven holding a sign saying it was a hold-up,” she says. “I don’t think he had a weapon. He’s not aggressive, but he’s got a gambling and alcohol problem.” She doesn’t feel she ever knew him, only glimpsing the man he might have been. “He was pissed all the time so I didn’t really know what he was like.”
Her mother was the strong one. Stricken by polio as a child, she was hospitalised from six to 16, “but she kept the family going. She worked as a secretary all her life. She’s an incredibly strong person.” Hyland struggled academically before being accepted as an exchange student in America at 16. The host family had a “house full of books” and the experience gave her the resolve “not to end up like my father”.
Back in Melbourne, she began elocution lessons to straighten our her accent and got a series of part-time jobs. She excelled at school and gained a place to study law at Melbourne University. After graduating she was offered a job with a prestigious law firm. However, despite the drama in her early life she describes it as “the pinnacle of misery” and “the worst year of my life”. She resigned but continued working in law.
While she did that, she helped found a literary magazine, Nocturnal Submissions, which she ran for eight years until 1997. But she is not sure if it was time well spent. “A lot of [the writing] was vile – utterly execrable. Too many people use writing as a confessional. Reading it does not leave you with the energy to write.”
Hyland now teaches creative writing at Melbourne University and is working on a second novel. She doesn’t have to practise law. Still, she says with some regret that her legal practising certificate recently expired: “Law gave me some structure … all these rules and internal disciplines.” But writing is satisfying in a more primal way. “I’ve never experienced writer’s block,” she says. “When it’s going really well my body temperature goes up and I’m literally flushed. I get quite delirious.”
As a writer, Hyland prefers to be known by her initials to escape the constraints of gender. She is also ambivalent about nationality, for her childhood has left her with a wanderer’s heart. “I might live in Manhattan or Edinburgh or Cardiff,” she says. “I think of myself as without nationality.”
How the Light Gets In, by M.J. Hyland, is published by Penguin, $22.95.
Best Australian Essays 2004 has a piece by Hyland in it, also about her life, and you can see it online here.