While browsing online for books a few weeks ago, I came across M.J. Hyland’s first novel, How The Light Gets In, and I’ll admit that it was one of those instances when I decided to read the novel’s synopsis because I was so attracted to its cover. I’m not a smoker, but there was something about the way in which the cover shows just a partial view of a young woman’s face. Are those freckles or acne in this slightly out-of-focus picture? While the skin suggests youth, the lips suggest stubbornness. The photo offers more than a hint of delinquency, and I was intrigued.
Anyway, whoever made the decision for the cover of How The Light Gets In-…brilliant choice, and it’s one of those great instances when the book’s cover echoes its contents.
In How The Light Gets In, Louise Connor, a 16-year-old Australian girl arrives in America as an exchange student. Louise, who’s also known as Lou, comes from an impoverished home in Sydney. Lou’s parents, Sandra and Mick are unemployed and mainly spend their days eating junk food in front of the television set watching chat shows. The family–which includes Lou’s two teenaged sisters, Erin and Leona, “live squashed together” in a three bedroom flat. Lou takes a very dim view of her home life, her family and her future:
“Erin and her twenty-five year old boyfriend Steve will be at home, fouling my bedroom with dope fumes from their shampoo-bottle bong. Leona will also be there, probably getting drunk and using my mum and dad’s bed to make a baby with her fiance, Greg, a mechanic, who has eczema on his oil-stained fingers.”
While Lou, who is an intelligent girl, looks down on her family, there’s more than just snobbery involved. She doesn’t identify with her family’s coarse behaviour or their lack of ambition, and she has long-held adoption fantasies. As a result she looks forward to the exchange programme as an opportunity to reinvent herself and possibly as a means to never return. As part of her reinvention, Lou has some self-improvement plans–for example she intends to learn two new words a day. Lou’s plans for re-invention, however, include lies about her life, and these lies begin on the plane trip. Flashbacks of Lou’s family life offer bleak glimpses of her daily existence–poverty and benign neglect suffused with her parents’ odd sense of humour:
“Within a week of one another, both of my sisters lost adult teeth eating hard caramels at the movies. Erin brought her tooth home wrapped in tissue paper. The tooth was wedged in the caramel, bits of melted chocolate like dried blood around the edges, mixed with saliva. My mum said her favourite thing to say (which also happens to be one of my dad’s favourite things to say): ‘You made your bed now lie in it.’
‘But, Mum,’ said Erin, ‘I can’t walk around with a big black hole in my mouth.’
‘Why not?’ I said. ‘You walk around with a big black hole in your head.’
Erin grabbed hold of my hair, kneed me in the stomach and left. I fell to the floor, and as I lay there, I could smell the dirty dishcloth Mum uses to wipe the lino.
‘Enough of that,’ said my dad, re-hooking the strap on his overalls which had come undone without him realising, probably hours earlier.
‘Do yourself up, Mick,’ said my mum.
‘What do you think I’m doing?’ said my dad.’Dancing with a poodle?’
They laughed, and I got up off the stinking floor. My dad gave me a hard slap on the back and grinned at me.
‘Good one,’ he said.”
After arriving in America, Lou goes to live with her host family, The Hardings. The Hardings–mother Margaret, father, Henry and their two teenagers, Bridget and James live in a sprawling new Mcmansion located in a bland, upscale, Chicago suburb. Margaret Harding, a tall, lean and extremely repressed perfectionist works as a bank executive, sings in the choir, and dominates the family with her tight-lipped displeasure. Her husband, Henry, is more human, but since he isn’t allowed to voice a differing point of view and rarely speaks, he remains a sympathetic cipher. The Harding teenagers are appalling, spoiled brats, and while Bridget sets herself up as family spy, James views Lou as a training ground for sexual experience.
As for Lou, at first she’s impressed by the surrounding material possessions of the Hardings. She’s impressed by their Mercedes, the array of food, and the sheer newness of everything they own. But it isn’t long before Lou, a chronic insomniac who drinks to gain confidence, runs foul of the Hardings’ many rules and regulations.
How The Light Gets In is simply a wonderful novel. It examines the falsity of Lou’s situation through the constant conflicts with her host family. Lou has dreamed of another life, and she imagines that she has nothing in common with her blood relatives, and yet transplanted to upper middle-class America, and the sort of life she thinks she wants, she cannot conform to the Hardings’ expectations. But Lou has false expectations too. She thinks that she simply has to relearn her behaviour, and at no point did she calculate the fact that she may not really want to be like the Hardings:
“I have read somewhere that a sheep raised by dogs will eventually learn to chase cars . But how long does it take to learn the tricks of another animal? How long will I need to live with the Hardings before I unlearn the tricks of my own family?”
Placing Lou with the Hardings is obviously a recipe for disaster, and while the disasters do take place with humourous touches–Margaret’s horror at the cuckoo in her perfect nest, for example, the novel is more concerned about expectations, conformity, and the nature of charity. While Lou likes the idea of fitting in, there’s really no enviable place for her in the Harding family, and she’s soon mouthing new polite ways of existing. But there’s also the Hardings’ expectations. Margaret and Henry are completely out-of-their depth with Lou. Just what were they thinking when they signed up for an exchange student?
In this exploration of class and values, Margaret Harding is motivated by a desire to incorporate Lou into her perfect little world. By accepting a girl from an impoverished family, Margaret expects the gratification of seeing Lou’s awe at the Hardings’ life, and Lou is the child pressing her face against the window, gazing at the sumptuous feast set before her. Lou seems to understand the sort of reactions that Margaret wants, and at first Lou expresses the right level of admiration and longing to belong in the Harding family circle. But Lou is used to her family and their neglectful ways, and even if she’s not ready to really accept that she’s a product of her upbringing, she cannot adjust to some of the gestures Margaret makes.
Is it a sense of pride that causes Lou to lie about her home life or is this all part of her ongoing reinvention of the self? In one scene, Margaret explains the curfew, and Lou lies that she has the same curfew at home. The truth of the matter is that Lou’s parents probably wouldn’t even notice if she went missing for a few days. While she agrees to abide by Margaret’s rules, Lou silently acknowledges:
“In Sydney I stay out until the early hours of the morning playing cards, listening to music and drinking, without ever calling home.”
Lou is a marvellous fictional character. She’s set on a course for disaster, and she realises this as she desperately attempts to establish relationships. As the novel continues, Lou experiences an ever-increasing sense of detachment and displacement. At home, her role was to express disgust at the sisters’ behaviour, but her role in America seems to be to show constant gratitude and awe towards the beneficence of the Hardings. They exist as accoutrements to her idealised life, and she exists as a reflection of their success and affluence. Lou’s inner conflict represents the dichotomy of what we are and what we want to be , and this clash of worlds–the real and the idealised play out in this stunning novel.