Review: “Carry Me Down”

“The mysteries of childhood and of coming of age have long been rich ground for novelists to mine.” That might be one way to start a review of a book like M.J. Hyland’s Carry Me Down, but every time I read a review that begins with a sentence like that I instantly think to myself, “So what is he saying? That this book just rips off a bunch of other books?”

The answer is yes and no. While Hyland’s novel does cover some familiar territory, she does so with a keen sense of perception that allows her to draw her characters in meticulous detail. Every situation in which they find themselves and their every action simply rings true, a quality that ultimately makes for a satisfying (if quick) read.

Carry Me Down is the melancholy story of an Irish boy, John Egan, whose twelfth year brings with it a number of changes. His body is changing; Hyland describes him as unusually tall for his age, and people often mistake him for older than he is. At the same time, his relationships are also changing. When a new girl arrives at his school, she steals away the affections of Brendon, his only real friend. He retreats to the comfort of his home life with his parents, who dote over him. But when familial strife removes even this refuge, John and his parents must move from pastoral Gorey to the slums of Dublin, and John’s world is effectively shattered — and so, perhaps, is his sanity.

The Catcher in the Rye is the obvious master mold for this particular subgenre of novel. There are other, quirkier examples — Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory come to mind — but John Egan’s young, unreliable narrator bears the most similarities to Holden Caulfield.

Like Caulfield, he is an outsider, shunned and misunderstood by his classmates. Like Caulfield, he imagines himself capable of greatness, but never truly seems to achieve much of anything. He’s an observer, not an actor. And where Caulfield was endlessly frustrated with the “phonies” around him, Egan attacks the perceived hypocrisy of the world in a different way: He imagines himself the world’s greatest human lie detector, a talent he hopes will land him in The Guinness Book of World Records and win him and his family a trip to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, as he tries to develop his skill, it ends up causing him more harm than good.

This similarity to earlier books (and very successful ones) makes it difficult to praise Carry Me Down outright. I really did feel as if I had traveled down this road before, just set in a different time and place. But it’s worth mentioning the novel’s setting, because this might be its greatest strength.

Hyland spent her own adolescence in Dublin in the 1970s, and she captures the scenes and struggles of this location with occasionally breathtaking fidelity. At the same time, she reveals the inner life of her characters in ways that are moving, insightful, and occasionally disturbing, all the while giving the impression of dead-on accuracy to real people we will never meet. It is Hyland’s keen powers of observation and talent for the language that make this book a worthwhile read, even if we could wish for a slightly more original plot.