Patrick Oxtoby, twenty-one years old and newly single, embodies the dilemma of the young, emotionally detached young man. Escaping to the relative seclusion of a boarding house in a small seaside town after his girlfriend, Sarah, tells him that she can’t marry him, Patrick is the first to admit that he has never really felt quite at home living with his mother, father, and brother Russell.
Patrick hopes to start a new life and perhaps become more relevant after unceremoniously flunking out of university. He’s never done any serious violence to anybody, “never even thought about it that much,” but since
his teens he’s been plagued with a sore neck and shoulders. He doesn’t quite
know why he keeps getting these intense pains that seem to cripple his ability to function.
He can’t afford this life beyond three months, but Patrick is going to make good while it lasts
- “make it count.” Welcomed by Bridget, the landlady who happily befriends him and invites him for the odd drink with the other two lodgers, Ian Welkin and Shaun Flindall, Patrick seems quite content, other than exhibiting a pervasive disconnect
from himself and an inability to express any real emotion.
Spending his days walking to the promenade and drinking in the cold air, he
breathes in the constant smell of stale ash and engine oil when he secures employment as a car mechanic at a local body shop. Things seem to be going
alright until, back at the lodging house, Welkin and Flindall begin to become bothersome, the two turning out to be a couple of spoilt carousing drunks who constantly bring home girls.
Patrick isn't a heavy drinker, but he drinks in bouts - and since Sarah broke it off, he’s been drinking more and more, particularly at the local train station bar. Only Georgia, a kindly waitress at a local café, can perhaps stop Patrick’s brain flooding with all the sour things that are being stored up, along with a furtive sexual tension between Welkin that suddenly surfaces.
While Patrick’s desire is almost palpable, a sudden and horrific act changes the course of
his life. Suddenly locked up in the “secured gates of hell,” Patrick’s life becomes filled with drama and tragedy. From then on, Hyland deconstructs Patrick’s plight with special attention to the dramatic events that shape her hero’s decent to the grimness of the British prison system in the early 1960s.
A grim allegory for a fallen man, Patrick seems endlessly detached, a bystander in his own surroundings, but he does find a certain comfort in the "system." Throughout the story, Hyland holds her protagonist together with such care and breaks him apart just as abruptly. One of many powerful moments comes during the trial sequences, Patrick’s heart thumping with a blast of hope while his constant physical and emotional sickness makes that
very hope turn sour.
The author revels in the painful acknowledgment of her protagonist’s personal shames and regrets at what can’t be reversed,
yet she also infuses her dark, rather sad story with the great possibilities of life. Of course, Patrick’s past actions can’t be reversed as this solitary, confused, emotionally blank and battered young man is forced to admit his private failings.