Belonging- ‘How the Light Gets In’
At the beginning of Anthem, the Leonard Cohen song with the lines, "There's a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in", there is a burst of almost desperate optimism: "The birds they sang at the break of day/ Start again I heard them say/ Don't dwell on what has passed away/ Or what is yet to be." In M.J. Hyland's debut novel, that same sweaty desperation for rebirth oozes from Lou Connor as she sits in the stale air and cramped seat of a plane approaching Chicago and a year as an exchange student. This is not just her first flight, but her first time away from a Sydney housing commission flat. Her chance to refashion herself. She is smarter than her family and friends, and pricked more easily than their bluff ignorance could ever be. Like any 16-year-old, she resents the thought of belonging but secretly clamours for it. And maybe her host family, the Hardings, who appear to be everything her family isn't - rich, working, "other" - will offer that.
But the Hardings are models of closeness without intimacy, and Lou, who wants that intimacy but can't stand being touched, stumbles between indifference and ugliness until the almost inevitable alcohol-fuelled crash. The over-educated, under-lived teen as a first-person narrator is a dangerous tool for any writer. Most fail because they cannot find or sustain a believable balance of ignorance and knowledge, bravado and self-centredness. Hyland's grip slips only a couple of times, when the authorial voice intrudes with language and knowledge that would be out of place from even the smartest young protagonist. Generally, Lou feels as real as any teenager, which makes Hyland's flat tone appropriate. I do have a problem with the way Hyland foreshadows but fails to deliver a revelatory climax to the Hardings' secrets. The father crying in the study, the brittle mother, the almost zealous denial of any loss of control: all point to a gathering darkness. Hyland...
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