How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In

by M. J. Hyland


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Lou Connor, a gifted but unhappy sixteen-year-old, is desperate to escape her life of poverty in Sydney, Australia. When she is offered a place as an exchange student at a college in Illinois, it seems as if her dreams are going to be fulfilled. Her host family, the Hardings, has a large and beautiful house in Illinois and couldn't be more welcoming. Everything is perfect. Until Lou starts having to live in the suffocating and repressed atmosphere of the Hardings' suburban mansion and things start to go terribly wrong. How the Light Gets In is an acutely observed tale of adolescence. But more than that, it is an intelligent and darkly humorous study of human aspiration, self-sabotage, and the dislocation and alienation felt by an outsider. In Lou Connor, M. J. Hyland has created a complex and unforgettable protagonist who mesmerizes the reader with her vivacity and vulnerability, from hopeful beginning to unexpected, haunting end.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841955483
Publisher: Canongate U.S.
Publication date: 06/09/2004
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,209,967
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.87(d)
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

M.J. Hyland is an ex-lawyer and the author of three multi-award-winning novels: How the Light Gets In, Carry Me Down, and This is How. Carry Me Down was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won both the Hawthornden Prize and The Encore Prize.

Hyland is also a lecturer in Creative Writing in The Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester where she runs fiction workshops, alongside Martin Amis, Colm Tóibín, and Jeanette Winterson. She also runs regular fiction masterclasses in The Guardian Masterclass Programme, and has twice been shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Prize (2011 and 2012). She also publishes in The Guardian's "How to Write" series, and has written nonfiction for The Financial Times, Granta, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. Hyland is co-founder of The Hyland and Byrne Editing Firm (see - &


Melbourne, Australia

Date of Birth:

June 6, 1968

Place of Birth:

London, England


Arts/Law Degree, the University of Melbourne, Australia, 1996; M.A in English, The University of Melbourne, 2004

Read an Excerpt


In less than two hours this aeroplane will land at Chicago's O'Hare airport. It's lunchtime. My window shutter is open, the sky is vast and blue and the earth is brown and flat. The air hostess has delivered my drink and my meal, and on the in-flight TV, a panel of Christians are talking about the recent execution by lethal injection of a man on death row in Texas.

'He was a Christian,' says a woman holding a crucifix.

'For his last meal he requested a banana, a peach and a salad with either ranch or Italian dressing,' says a man with a beard.

'He should rot in hell,' says another.

I lift the foil from the white plastic dish on my tray, but I cannot eat.

I don't know how the old woman sitting next to me can stuff warm chicken into a bread roll and eat it, while right in front of her there's a picture of a gurney covered in leather straps in an execution chamber.

Now there's a picture of death row. Men wearing orange shirts and trousers are holding onto the bars of their cells, or lying on their narrow beds staring at the ceiling.

The old woman looks at the screen and drinks her drink.

Now there's a man being interviewed, his eyes covered with a black strip to protect his identity.

'Many years ago,' he says, 'I worked for a certain state penitentiary. I was the guy who pulled the switch.'

The interviewer asks him if he was always certain of the guilt of the men he helped to kill. The man looks away from the interviewer. 'Pretty sure. As sure as you can be, I guess.' And then, after a confused pause, 'Yeah, I was sure. Most of the time.'

The old woman finishes her chicken roll. 'Good riddance to bad rubbish,' she says. 'An eye for an eye.'

To stop myself from screaming, I count the uneaten peas on her tray and start to give each of them a name.

'What do you do with bad eggs in your country?' she asks.

'We put them in the bin.'

Paula, Patrick, Patricia, Penelope, Paul, Pilar.


'The trash,' I say. 'The garbage. We put them in the garbage for the cats and birds to eat.'

She says 'Oh' and then is quiet. I know she would gladly watch an execution, stare through the glass as the needle is plunged into somebody's arm.

'Have you come to America to study?' she asks.

'Yes,' I say. 'I'm an exchange student.'

I look away.

'That sounds like fun,' she says.

I turn back to her, just in case she's a plant from the Organisation, sent to check on my civility. This is just the kind of thing the Organisation would do.

'What city are you from?' she asks. She has green sleep in the corners of her eyes.

'Sydney,' I say. 'I can see the harbour and the opera house from my bedroom window.'

'How wonderful.'

'Yeah,' I say. 'It is.'

I can't see the harbour, or the opera house, from the bedroom window of the high-rise commission flat where I live. All I can see is the edge of the city; the lights spread out in rows like a circuit board.

'Well, you won't have views like that in Chicago. And it won't be sunny all year round, either.'

'I hate the sun anyway,' I say. 'I prefer cold weather.'

'Oh my,' she says, folding her arms for emphasis. 'You won't be saying that in a few months.'

'Maybe not,' I say. 'Do you want my chicken?'

'Oh, no,' she says, disgusted.

When the plane begins its descent, I look down at the edges of Chicago and wonder why I'm only happy when I'm looking forward to something, and why when something happens it's never as good as I have imagined it will be. I'd like to know whether I'm the only person in the world who feels this way. Right now I should be happier than ever. Being on this flight is something I've been looking forward to for a long time.

I keep thinking this way, chewing it over like a cud, so that ten minutes before landing I am so nervous about meeting my hostparents, I can hardly breathe. My teeth feel metallic. I get up and lock myself in the bathroom and coat the palms of my hands with talcum powder.

The seatbelt light comes on and the bell rings. I stay where I am. An air hostess knocks on the door. I open it.

'Please return to your seat,' she says.

I follow her down the aisle to my seat. She smells nice.

'Excuse me?' I say. 'Could I possibly borrow some of your perfume?' She puts her hand on the small of my back and her zombie face does not move.

'Sorry,' she says, 'you'll have to return to your seat now.'

When I sit down the old lady grabs my arm, digging into me with her sharp yellow nails. Compared to the air hostess, she smells like stale vase water.

'Are you afraid of landing?' I ask.

'I think I'm going to die,' she says.

'You won't die,' I say, and immediately blush to crimson at the stupidity of my words.

The aeroplane lands and the passengers rush into O'Hare's domestic arrivals area. It's noisier than a turkey farm, and the hot lights, orange as incubator lamps, beat down on the back of my head.

A man in a dark suit holds a sign with my name on it. I know that he is Henry Harding, my host-father. I know that the woman standing next to him, also wearing a dark suit, is my host-mother, Margaret Harding.

No member of my family has ever been overseas. My mum (Sandra), my dad (Mick), and my two teenage sisters, (Erin and Leona), live squashed together in our three-bedroom flat (four bedrooms, if you count the box-room) and the few places I have ever been with them did not involve visas, suitcases or aeroplanes.

I wave at my host-parents. Henry is the first to step forward.

'You must be Louise Connor,' he says, holding out his hand.

'Yes,' I say, as I offer my hand. 'It's great to meet you.'

'The feeling's mutual,' says Margaret, smiling. 'Welcome to our family.'

'We hope that the year you spend with us will be a very happy one,' says Henry.

'Me too,' I say.

'Let's get you home,' says Margaret. She steps towards me and takes my hand between both of hers.

This sudden intimacy makes me acutely aware of my teeth and the way they don't sit properly in my jaw. My mouth has lost its hold on my face. Nobody has ever held my hand before, except when I was a small child, of course, and except for the first boy I kissed, who held my hand when we were roller-skating. I couldn't stand it then, and I can't stand it now. Nothing makes me feel more uncomfortable.

I let go and she keeps smiling.

'Wait,' I say. 'We can't leave until somebody from the Organisation fills in some forms.'

'Why don't we sit down, then?'

'Good idea,' says Henry, who is fair of skin and hair. His eyelashes and eyebrows are barely visible. Henry is an almostalbino.

We sit in moulded plastic seats and watch the other exchange students meet their host-families.

'I love flying,' I say. 'I love how on the wing of the plane there's writing that says, Do not walk past this point.'

'That's funny,' says Margaret to Henry. 'Don't you think that's funny?'

'No,' says Henry softly. 'I mean, I hadn't thought of that before.' He frowns.

'Well,' says Margaret to Henry, 'isn't it just a great treat to meet Louise at last?'

'It really is,' says Henry, putting his hand on his wife's leg.

'I agree,' I say and put my hand on my jeans to soak up the claggy paste made out of my sweat and too much talcum powder.

The Organisation's regional president comes over. Her name is Florence Bapes and she was my team leader during the week-long orientation camp in Los Angeles.

'I'm Florence Bapes,' she says, 'That's apes with a "B".'

'Hello,' says Henry. 'Great to meet you.'

Florence shakes Margaret's hand.

'I'll be Louise's mentor this year,' she says. 'You can call me Flo.'

During the flight, Flo paced up and down the aisle and checked on me four times. She said 'How ya doin'?' each time, and I don't think I want to hear her say it again.

'Hi, Flo,' I say. 'How are you?'

Flo has abnormally small brown eyes, tiny and dark, with no discernible pupils.

'I'm fantastic and getting better,' she says.

This is Flo's catchphrase; she says it every time somebody asks her how she is, as though she is the host of a game show.

Margaret smiles at me, then licks her top lip with a tongue that's surprisingly wide and fat.

'Well,' says Flo, 'make sure you ring Lou's parents and let them know she's safe and sound.' She drapes her arm over my shoulder and squeezes me. 'This young girl needs a lot of TLC.'

Flo threatens to hug me, so I move away from her. She thinks I need help because I'm here on a scholarship for dis advantaged students, and because she found out I've never eaten salmon before. At the camp she came into my dormitory, and sat on the end of my bed, so I felt compelled to tell her things. When she found out that I used to eat tinned soup donated by the Salvation Army, she nearly cried.

'Yes, of course,' says Margaret, reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder. 'We'll call tonight. I'm looking forward to talking to Louise's parents.'

'You can't,' I say.

Flo looks at her watch. 'Why not?'

'I've just remembered,' I say. 'My whole family's gone to Spain for a month.'

'Oh,' says Flo, not as sceptical as she should be. 'Well make sure and call as soon as they're back from their holiday. And don't forget tonight's meeting at my place.'

'That'll be great,' I say. 'Let's go to luggage-claim and get my suitcases.'

'I'll be going then,' says Flo, as though we should be sad that she has to leave. 'See you tonight. Seven-thirty sharp.'

'We look forward to it,' says Margaret.

'Terrific,' I say. 'Fantastic.'

Henry looks at me, and frowns.

It's true that my mum and dad won't be home to answer the phone. They're staying with my mum's eldest sister who has broken her hip. But 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 fiancé, Greg, a mechanic, who has eczema on his oil-stained fingers.

If Henry or Margaret were to ring the flat tonight, Steve would probably answer the phone the way he always does, with some supernaturally unamusing comment. It was Steve – who works as a bouncer at the pub on the corner of our street – who made me realise that I never want to live with my family again.

Three weeks before leaving home, I took the day off school so that I could have the flat to myself. My mum and dad – who are unemployed and collect fortnightly pensions – spent the whole day lounging together on the couch, smoking and watching chat shows. Erin came home at lunchtime with Steve and three of his mates, each carrying a six-pack of beer.

I was sitting at the kitchen table, reading anonymous lyrics of fifteenth-century poets. Steve stood over me while the pizza rotated and unfroze itself in the microwave.

'Ha!' he said, pointing over my shoulder at the page. 'I have a gentle cock.'

I closed the book and stood up. 'It's a poem about a bird,' I said.

'Yeah,' he said, 'a bird on my cock!'

I kicked him in the shin, and one of his mates said, 'Whaddya wanna do with her, Steve?'

Steve clipped the back of my head and said, 'She'll keep.'

I tried to spit at Steve's friend, but the spit landed on my shoe.

'Hey,' said Steve, excited at how much I was blushing, coming towards me with pizza in his hand. 'Does miss scholarship smartypants wanna go down to the car park for some spitting lessons?'

'Yeah, all right,' I said, and went downstairs with Steve and his mates to spit at the washing on the clothes line and drink some beer. I was saying goodbye.

'I'll carry your suitcases,' says Henry.

'They have wheels,' I say, but when he tries to pull my suitcases along behind him, a wheel falls off. I pick it up and turn red.

'It always does that.'

'Never mind,' says Margaret. 'We'll carry one each.'

As Margaret and Henry walk on ahead, I stop and look back. The other exchange students are saying goodbye to each other, hugging and exchanging addresses as though they are lifelong friends.

'Wait for me!' I call out, in a voice that's not really mine, and run towards Henry and Margaret, towards their tall bodies and the backs of their clean, dark suits.

Henry reaches out with his free arm and drapes it over my shoulder. I take a deep breath, and then, at last, it happens. I smell my future in Henry's aftershave.

It is easy for smells to remind people of the past: the smell of a cake eaten at the seaside, a ham sandwich, rosary beads or an orange. But I can smell my future in just the same way, and the smell of Henry tells me that, from now on, I will sleep on cleaner sheets.


Henry drives us home. The Mercedes smells as though it has just come out of its plastic packet.

'Is this a new car?'

'Yes,' says Margaret. 'Do you like it?'

'It's lovely,' I say.

'It's a pretty long drive,' says Margaret. 'We hope you enjoy the scenery.'

'I will,' I say, but all I can see so far are cars and billboards – just like Sydney.

Henry and Margaret take it in turns to ask me polite questions. What food do I like? What sports do I play? How hot does it get in Sydney? Do I like the beach? Have I ever seen a kangaroo?

I sit in the back and wish I did not have to talk. I feel too nervous and can't help lying. I say I play lots of sport. I say I like the beach. I say I once had a pet kangaroo called Skippy. They like these stories and so I tell more of them. I feel dirty. They have such white teeth and mine are so rotten.

'Do you agree with capital punishment?' I ask.

Margaret turns around to look at me. It's the first time she's looked at me without smiling.


'Yeah, and Henry.'

She looks at Henry.

'No, I most certainly do not,' she says, as though I've accused her of something.

Henry looks at me in the rear-vision mirror.

'No, I don't either. Definitely not.'

Margaret faces the road.

'Why do you ask?'

'I just wondered,' I say.

Nobody speaks.

'I think I'll lie down for a minute,' I say.

'If you like,' says Margaret. 'But keep yourself strapped in.'

Henry wakes me as we enter town.

'We're here,' he says, pointing at the sign that says 'Welcome to B —' and tells you the population, which is 480,320. The sign says B — is 'A Great Town to Be In'.

Margaret tells me about the national parks, the new shopping centre and about the teacher-to-student ratio in the high school I'll be going to, and then we pull into the wide drive of the Harding house.

My new home is a suburban mansion: two storeys, wide, tall and white, with six big white columns on the front porch and curtains clean as milk in the windows. The middle attic-style window at the top has one pale-blue shutter open, one closed. I want this to be my room.

The quiet street, lined with identical trees, has the cropped symmetry of a street in an elaborate model village or train set, freshly painted, no dirt.

'What a magnificent house!' I say. 'I love it.'

Henry pushes the front door open with his back. He goes up the staircase, dragging my two suitcases behind him. Another wheel falls off.

'Come with me,' says Margaret. 'I'll take you on the grand tour.'

There are stained-glass windows on either side of the front door. In the entrance hall, red and blue spots, cast by the glass on the sun-soaked floor, look like spilt paint.

'Oh, look!' I say, as though I've just seen a cat use a sewing machine.

Margaret smiles. 'Isn't it pretty?'

'Yeah,' I say.

When I say 'yeah' I think I have already picked up an American accent.

Margaret shows me some of the fifteen-room house: dining-room, kitchen and family room. The air is fresh for the inside of a house. It's a dewy, clean air, easy to breathe, as though the leaves of the giant trees are inside as well as out.

Where I used to live there is carpet so threadbare you can see through to its veins, and the couch and armchairs are made of vinyl that peels away like sunburnt skin. But here there are polished wood floors, heavy, solid furniture, oil paintings and ceiling-high bookshelves.

I point to the panels of wood that reach half-way up the walls.

'What's that called?'

'Wainscoting. Do you like it?'

'It must be like living inside an enormous tree house.'

'I'd never thought of it like that. What a sweet idea.'

She sounds like she has a cold. So does Henry, but I like their accents. Not too strong, not too distracting.

Margaret leads me up the stairs. I am just thinking how I will probably like her and Henry, and how I hope they like me, when she puts her arm through mine. My arm feels like a sick snake, allergic to something, hot and poisoned. My face grows hotter. My ears and my neck burn red. I try not to let her see my face. Henry comes out of a door at the top of the landing.

'We'll meet you downstairs,' says Margaret.

'Good idea,' he says with a smile so tight and wide it must be hurting his face. I know how he feels. When the pressure to be happy is this strong, it feels like somebody is strangling you.

Margaret takes my hand and leads me along the hallway.

'This is mine and Henry's room.'

This room is yellow, has a four-poster bed and an ensuite.

'This is Bridget's room.'


Excerpted from "How the Light Gets In"
by .
Copyright © 2003 M. J. Hyland.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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How the Light Gets In 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
How the Lights Gets In was an extrememly sensitive novel for me. I just happene dto pick it up while it was on sale, looking for a good read. I have to agree with some of teh reviews here, that it was slow to start and somewhat detached, but as I continues through the novel, I found that Lou echoed mmost of my own childhood. The wonderful aspect about this novel is its intensity, its uninhibited truth. It doesn't hide anything from the reader, giving you Lou entirely. All of her thoughts, all of her action, every single piece of experience. It doesn't over dramaticize or insert plot devices to push the book through. What you're getting is Lou. You're getting her life, all the ugly of it. But most inportantly, you're getting it. You're getting the impatientness she feels with the mundane world, the feelings of insecurity she feels, you're getting everyday of her life, sullied from just growing up, growing older, and accepting life as not being anything remarkable or perfect. I enjoyed the book immensely. I highly recommend it to readers. I give it 4 stars, seeing as although I enjoyed it immensely, I can imagine that the novel is difficult to get into in the beginning, difficult to understand entirely, and perhaps, has too exclusive an audience. But if you have an open mind and want to truly understand human nature and life in its true form, I HIGHLY recommend picking it up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I honestly loved this book although not at first. I had to get into the book to really appreciate it. The main character, Lou, is a well developed character whose choices were misguided and you can't help but cringe when you realize what her actions have led her to in the end. Amazing and I wish there was more to this story because I felt that Lou's story was not yet truly finished, but the journey to the ending is what makes this a fantastic book, hence the title for my review.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i thought the book was fantastic, and really captured teenage thinking. it ended weird though, i wish there was a sequel to it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Well the girl's name is great (lol) my name is Louise Connor too. Seriously though this book is poignant and touching- I'm sure many people will enjoy reading it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I though the book was amazing, I couldnt put it down. Hyland introduces you to a troubled sixteen year old girl anyone can identify with and whos views on the world cannot be anymore scathingly sarcastic, yet endearing at the same time. How The Light Gets In had a somewhat dissapointing ending but was surpassingly realistic and seems to fit the book well. I love it and reccomend it to anyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
in this novel i really related to the protagonist, lou is a smart girl who did some stupid things, she craves love and attention and just wants to fit in, the hardings give her a second chance dispite the mistakes she made but she ends up screwing her second chance at redemption
Djupstrom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kind of like a female, modern Catcher in the Rye, but without the cleverness. It was just alright.
escondidolibrary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Australian teen, Lou, comes to America as an exchange student to escape her lower class family. Living with an upper middle class family in a Chicago suburb seems perfect at first, but Lou just can't seem to be the good girl she & everyone else wants her to be.
coolmama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was drawn into this absorbing first novel by MJ Hyland.It tells the story of Lou Conner, a brilliant 16 yr old who leaves her poverty striken home in Sydney and gets places in a one year exchange program in a suburb of Chicago. Told from Lou's point of view, she is a brash, self-destructive, hormone fueled teen. Her host family is odd, especially from her lens. The father is always crying, the mother loves to hug others, she is ignored by the snotty daughter, and the son borders (or not?) on sexual abuse. I am still trying to work out the ending.
safetygirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
australian teen comes to america as an exchange student to escape her lower class family. living with an upper middle class family in a chicago suburb seems perfect at first, but lou just can't seem to be the good girl she and everyone else wants her to be.
lost_in_pages on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book immensely, but less for the story, characters, or conclusion than for the writing. Lou's perspective is so often thought provoking. She isn't necessarily right, yet her assessments ring true clearly with some things while she appears oblivious about others. It is stated that Lou has a high IQ, yet she fails to be smart over and over again in the ways that would benefit her, more out of childish beliefs than due to self-destructive impulses. Hyland captures that contrast in a way that is fair and believable.Several times while reading, I paused to savor a passage or paragraph. I laughed often with pleasure at this novel's wit. It has a crushingly bitter ending, however, managing to be both inevitable and unexpected at the same time.
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Just didn't go anywhere. Unimpressed