M J Hayland: How the Light Gets in

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There is something about the coming-of-age story that never grows old. While some writers have transformed the tale of adolescence into either sentimental kitsch or unrealistic caricature, others have managed to capture that stage of life with admirable clarity. Though not perfect by any means, M J Hyland is one of the latter.
Raised in poverty on the outskirts of Sydney, 16-year-old Louisa Connor – Lou for short – is ready to start her life over. Bright and hardworking, she has won a scholarship to study abroad for one year in the United States. However, having grown up in nearly absolute freedom, she is hardly prepared for a strict suburban host family with a reticent, melancholy father, a neurotic mother, a shallow 13-year-old sister, and a 15-year-old brother who is just a little too happy to have a female exchange student living in his home.
We see and empathise with Lou’s loneliness, her mix of affection and disdain for her new family, and the insecurity that ultimately plunges her into a downward spiral; at the same time, we get the sense that there is something missing from the story.
While Hyland describes Lou’s host family with vividness and precision, we are left with the question as to why they act as they do. It is obvious that beneath their veneer of suburban smugness, something is terribly wrong; however, we never get to find out just what that something is. Throughout the novel, Hyland develops several subplots that become so interesting as to rival the main plot, but is then forced to abandon them in order to return to Lou’s story.
It is unfortunate that one of the most interesting figures in the novel, a Gogol-reading, chess-playing Russian student, has to be dropped simply because he is a minor character. While the need for narrative decision is understandable, it is difficult not to wish for a bit more development of these sideline stories.
Another flaw in the story is the dialogue. Although Lou’s spunky speech patterns develop her interesting though alienated character, they occasionally sound a bit contrived. The same holds true for some of the other characters, particularly the host parents. While Hyland may simply be seeking to reveal the superficiality of their conversations, the dialogue still sounds somewhat unrealistic.
Nevertheless, with a treasury of elaborate lies about pet kangaroos back home and plenty of sarcastic comments combined with genuine feeling toward others, this book is very poignant and moving.ARCHIVE: 3rd week TT 2004 

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