Why did I not review How the Light Gets In by M J Hyland when it was reincarnated last summer as a young adult novel for Walker Canongate? Maybe I just allowed my prejudice against authorial initials (yes, yes we all loved Catcher in the Rye but, you know, get over it) to overcome my critical neutrality, or maybe it arrived too late for my deadline? But better late than never to hail a teen classic.
Lou, an Australian exchange student living with an American Dream family is in equal parts fascinating and repellent. The reader sits uneasily in her head observing the front she presents to the world. Highly intelligent and clearly damaged, she is the product of an impoverished background, both materially and culturally. So she aspires to clean sheets and unconditional love and her desire to sleep in other people’s beds (preferably without the owners) is both touching and creepy as is her sensory sensitivity. On the plane coming over the old woman next to her smells of “stale vase water” while her host mother smells like “milky picnic tea poured from a flask” and the school room of “suffocated paint”. The nearest she gets to intimacy is to ask people if they know what “desquamation” is – though of course she already knows the answer.
Hyland’s descriptions are exquisitely wrought. The cartilages at the back of her host-sister’s knees “splay like miniature cathedral buttresses.” And a teacher has “a jagged black hairline near the front of his skull that makes him look like a shiny egg cracked open by a small and furious hatchling”. The sense of dread that dogs the reader – you know it’s not going to end well – is counter-balanced by the sheer pleasure of reading such beautifully crafted work. I hate to say it, but I think M J Hyland has earned the right to those initials.