Introductory activities

Unlike films and television programs, novels and books do not come with age classifications or warnings. However, there are particular books and circumstances that may cause teachers, schools or parents to rethink the choice of a book given the possible emotional impact on one or more students. Currently this is a topic of debate in some US universities and you may be interested in the arguments for and against the provision of trigger warnings on literature for students in this article, US students request ‘trigger warnings’ on literature or this one, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.

While both articles ridicule the use of trigger warnings, this is nonetheless an issue that secondary school teachers in Australia may like to think about as they explore particularly sensitive or ‘triggering’ content in literature in classrooms. This is particularly relevant where students have no choice and scenes are read aloud or students are part of discussions around a ‘triggering’ issue for individuals or families. Of course, this does not mean that certain books that may contain triggers should not be used. Rather it suggests that teachers should be mindful of the students in their classes, including their privacy, and that sometimes it may be wise to check with the school counsellor or year level coordinator to alert you to any issues without disclosing student names.

In the case of Carry Me Down, teachers may want to consider the issues of self-harm (making the scalp bleed), domestic violence (the son’s smothering of his mother) and issues relating to poverty (itinerancy and unemployment). This is not to suggest that such issues cannot (or should not) be opened up in classrooms, or in relation to literature. In fact, the opposite may be true most of the time. Rather this is a suggestion that there may be some necessity to consider vulnerabilities within individual classes.

Activity 1: Pre-reading: ‘When I was eleven’

Because this unit is designed for students aged 17 or 18, it may be useful to foreground their reading and study with a return to their memories and experiences of being an eleven year-old.

  1. ask students to collect memories, photos, toys, technologies and artefacts from their lives at age eleven. They might like to consult family members and friends, and think about their school days at that age. What was important to them? What significant changes or events can they recall in their lives at that time: domestic, social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual or physical? What did they most love or loathe about being eleven?
  2. using the resources below, and others they might find, students are encouraged to learn as much as possible about the diversity and commonalities of eleven year-old ‘tweens’. How typical was their own experience of being eleven, and what was atypical for them? What lessons can adults learn from eleven year olds?

Activity 2: Visual vignettes of family life

This novel is set mostly within the walls of family homes, and M. J. Hyland constructs characters and relationships through the vignettes of the domestic life of the Egan family. To support students to appreciate the craft, it is suggested that they be introduced to visual vignettes from film and television in preparation for the linguistic, print vignette that opens the novel.

Students might be directed to work in groups to consider one or more of the family vignettes provided:

As they work through their vignette they might be directed to analyse each of the following aspects:

  1. Characterisation: all details of the character from what they say, to what they wear, move, suggest or have said about them and so on.
  2. Setting: the features of the place such as the degree of comfort, colour, warmth, luxury, era, intimacy, realism and other aspects of significance.
  3. Dialogue: related to character but also what it reveals of relationships through what is and is not said, humour or irony, tension or harmony and so on.
  4. Movement: what is happening here and what might be the significance of events, actions, interactions (or lack of).
  5. Mise en scene: How is everything pulled together in composition and what does the scene suggest to the viewer.
  6. Discuss what each vignette suggests to us about the family portrayed: their relationships, what may have come before, and what may follow this scene.
    (ACELR003)  (ACELR004)   (ACELR005)   (ACELR006)   (ACELR011)

Activity 3: Vignettes of family life in Carry Me Down (Chapters 1–3, pp 1–29)

Synthesising task

After reading the first three chapters, students work together or alone, to prepare discussion notes for the class regarding Hyland’s creation of a family vignette.

  1. Their notes should be structured around responses to Questions 1-6 in Activity 2 (above), focusing on what we learn about the Egan family.
  2. The vignettes in Activity 2 were all visual. In Carry Me Down, Hyland relies on the printed word. Consider how she manages to create such a strong visual image, and refer to two extracts from the first three chapters to illustrate how language is used to convey those images.
    (ACELR003)   (ACELR006)   (ACELR007)   (ACELR011)

At this point, teachers and students will negotiate a reading schedule for the remainder of the novel. The remaining activities assume knowledge of the entire text.


The best style is the style you don’t notice.” – Somerset Maugham

M. J. Hyland is known for her minimalist approach to writing. Typically her novels are halved in length from first full draft to publication. She regards this process as essential to creating vivid, effective prose. In the study of Carry Me Down students will need to be focused on this approach to writing. Traditionally, many students believe that the use of adjectives and adverbs strengthens their writing, as they aim for a more ‘writerly’ approach. This is one reason the study of Hyland is so useful to all students of literature. She illustrates the power of ‘un-writerly’ prose:

On the first reading it should be superficially simple, but engaging, with a strong narrative pull. I intend to give the reader a reason to turn the page, so a good story on the surface, deceptively simple, minimalist, told with pared-back language. A nine-year old could read this book. But underneath the surface, I attempt to insinuate things, to do this quietly, and I suppose there’s a risk in that, because I have to trust that a reader who likes the book will go back and read it again, and notice what’s hidden, submerged. – Carry Me Down, M. J. Hyland in Interview.

In addition to writing, Hyland also lectures at universities, runs master classes for writers and owns an editing business. In that capacity as an editor she offers the following advice:

This is typical of the kind of thing I see in early drafts every day, and it can be cured, in time, if the writer has the right kind of talent and intelligence, and by applying the above principles:

The smell in the crowded pub was so vile that I nearly gagged. It was like the smell of a camel that’s been dead for three days. I whispered under my breath to Sarah, ‘That smell is so disgusting,’ and Sarah nodded so violently I thought her head would fall off, but she still looked beautiful with all her red curls wrapping round themselves like the golden tendrils of an ancient oak tree or like the snakes on Medusa’s head that we saw in the museum last week.”

This bad prose is very bad. The descriptions are overwrought, dilute dramatic effect and undermine authorial and narrative credibility. To say “nearly gagged” is not just cliched, it’s barely credible. Something prosaic is better than the wrecking-ball of “gagged”. A more subtle and truer description of the smell would better serve to establish trust between reader and writer. Something like, “The pub smelt of whisky and vegetable soup.” Most people know what whisky and vegetable soup smell like, but few know the smell of “a camel that’s been dead for three days”. And the “crowded pub” is probably noisy, so the idea of “whispered under my breath” is tautological and untruthful.

As for the other errors, see if you can find them yourself and rewrite the paragraph knowing this: it’s crucial that the reader not only sees what you want them to see but also believes you. – From How to write fiction, M. J. Hyland.

For further quotes and references to writers discussing the overuse of adjectives see the Flavorwire article, 10 Authors Against Adjectives. This notion of pared-back prose is a focus within Activity 4 below.

Activity 4: ‘Showing not telling’

Part A: Hyland’s minimalist style

Provide students with the following deliberately embellished extract via individual handouts or smartboard. This is an ideal group task. With reference back to the introductory notes regarding Hyland’s style of pared-back minimalist prose, consider the prose below. It is 326 words in length, exactly double the length of Hyland’s original language from the novel.

The task here is for students to pare back the language, removing unnecessary words until they hit the 163 word target. This requires discipline and attention to Hyland’s particularly literary style.

Follow up with class discussion of decisions made about what must be retained and what could/should be removed as they worked to reduce the text to the target word count?

What have students learnt about editing and disciplined writing that they might apply to their own work?

Embellished text:

When I carefully sit back down on the old wooden kitchen chair, and look towards my father, he declares with aplomb. ‘Hello, son,’ as though he has stupidly forgotten that we have already started a good morning conversation just five minutes earlier when I had previously entered the kitchen. ‘Did you have a satisfactory day with your school friend Brendan?’
‘Yes,’ I casually replied, looking straight back at him, as if conversation was always a relaxed matter with him. ‘It was alright, I guess, as far as days go.’
I take a few more morsels of my delicious buttery toast but my pink swollen tongue feels suddenly paralysed as if struck by a dentist’s needle. ‘Da? When you finally get your long-awaited degree in criminology, do you want to help catch those terrible criminals we see on television and read about in the press?’
He draws a long, deep breath and puts the heavy, academic textbook on his docile, broad lap. I can instantly tell that he wants to embark on intellectual discussion at this time. I pull my long adolescent legs up to my chin as I recline on the somewhat worn-out floral settee that was bought at a second-hand shop, and move so much closer in towards him so that my knobbly knee touches his bulbous hairy leg.
‘Not especially,’ he announces proudly with a wry expression on his face. ‘I want to understand them, my son. You’ve heard the wise expression that “prevention is better than cure” I assume?’ he asks me.
‘But you and Uncle Jack and Uncle Tony talk about despicable, nasty, god-forbidden criminals deserving everything they get, and more. You exclaim often that they should be strung up.’
My father awkwardly senses that I have cleverly caught him out with his hypocrisy. He wearily closes both of his eyes for a brief but significant moment, then opens them slowly, as though to start again at the beginning of the discussion. (326 words)

Here is the original, published text version for teacher reference and for students at the conclusion of the activity: 

When I sit back down he says, ‘Hello, son,’ as though he has forgotten that we have already started a conversation. ‘Good day with Brendan?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Alright.’
I take a few bits of toast but my tongue feels paralysed. ‘Da? When you’ve got your degree in criminology, do you want to help catch criminals?’
He takes a deep breath and puts the book on his lap. I can tell that he wants to talk today. I pull my legs up on the settee and move in close to him so that my knee touches his leg.
‘Not especially,’ he says. ‘I want to understand them. You’ve heard the expression prevention is better than cure?’
‘But you and Uncle Jack and Uncle Tony talk about criminals deserving everything they get. You said they should be strung up.’
My father senses that I have caught him out. He closes his eyes for a moment, then opens them, as though to start again. (Chapter 4, page 36)

Part B: Discussion of Hyland’s minimalist style 

With the extract from the novel in hand, discuss how Hyland has achieved such deceptively simple prose, or as she describes it, ‘un-writerly’ prose. Pay particular attention to:

  1. the restricted use of adjectives and adverbs;
  2. focus on the use of verbs to show (not tell);
  3. the use of ‘says’ as the only dialogue tag;
  4. the use of dialogue beats as a means of showing, not telling.

Teachers and students might find the discussion and extracts from interviews with M. J. Hyland particularly useful for this exercise (see link in the introduction to this section).

Part C: Show, don’t tell

Using knowledge from Parts A and B above, ask students to improve on these examples of poorly written prose extracts provided below. They should aim to remove all telling, and ensure their revised texts ‘show’. This might be completed in groups, pairs or individually:

a) 33 of the Most Hilariously Terrible Opening Sentences in Literature History

b) See the extract from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (PDF, 188KB). While this is a bestseller and for many a compelling story, it is a good example of what is termed ‘airport literature’, where the novel is driven by narrative with less attention to quality literary language. There is a heavy emphasis on telling, rather than showing. While English teachers and students may enjoy the experience of reading the novel, they would also be likely to recognise that it does not break new literary ground or provide the quality literary style of other set texts studied in the senior secondary English or Literature curricula.

The task, as students rework the extracts a) and b), is to transform, and shorten extracts by using the features identified above that often characterise quality literature and feature in Hyland’s Carry Me Down:

  1. the restricted use of adjectives and adverbs;
  2. focus on the use of verbs to show (not tell);
  3. the use of ‘says’ as the only dialogue tag (‘says’ in present tense, or ‘said’ in past tense);
  4. the use of dialogue beats as a means of showing, not telling.
    (ACELR005)   (ACELR006)

Activity 5: Analysis and discussion – point of view and tense

Another distinguishing feature of Carry Me Down is the fact that it is written in first-person, present tense. Students should be aware of the use of first-person point of view (POV) in the novel and consider why Hyland chose to write it from the perspective of John Egan. Furthermore, the use of the unreliable narrator is a feature of this novel and provides some of the ambiguity and mystery surrounding John and his family.

The present tense is also a very deliberate stylistic choice of authors, and particularly so in more recent times. There are debates about its effectiveness and students can consider this question explored here in a Guardian article.

The following extracts from well-known novels, which combine first-person point of view and present tense, are provided for student analysis. Discussion might focus on the reliability or otherwise of the narrator: do they have a particular bias, a blind-spot, an intellectual or psychological barrier that may limit or colour their perspective? Students might take some passages from any of the extracts and rewrite them, transforming them into second or third-person narratives, and also alter the tense to past or future. The discussion should focus on the impact of such changes and students’ personal preferences and tastes.

Finally, what is the impact of Hyland’s use of first-person, present tense in Carry Me Down. Why has she consciously used this perspective, and how does it help us understand the protagonist, John Egan?
(ACELR006)   (ACELR008)

M. J. Hyland was born in Ireland and raised briefly in Australia where she completed her law degree. She describes herself as a ‘completely botched lawyer’ and gave up law to pursue a career as a writer. Now living in the UK, she rejects notions of an ‘Australianness’ as an author or citizen. This does not suggest an antagonism towards Australia but rather a rejection of such labels:

. . . the fact the winner of our most important fiction award [the Miles Franklin Award] must not only be of the highest literary merit but also “reflect Australian life in any of its phases”, a stipulation that has controversially excluded works such as a Frank Moorhouse’s first League of Nations novel, Grand Days.

“It’s silly. It’s ludicrous,” the London-born, Dublin and Melbourne-reared Hyland says, and she’s just warming up.

“It’s so reductionist and crude and literal and moronic. It’s so patronising . . . to say there’s something typically Australian, that can be a sort of segregation . . . I hate it. If my next novel has gum trees in it, will that qualify?” – From M. J. Hyland: home is where the hurt is, The Australian, 4 August 2011.

Hyland has also revealed in other interviews the challenges in her life: her diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2008, but more significantly, her difficult childhood and family relationships. She grew up with a crippled mother and an alcoholic father, who spent time in jail for armed robbery. As a child, she admits to having inflicted violence on her father, and feeling that she needed to ‘put him out of his misery’ and save her family from the destruction he inflicted on them. In an interview, she describes her deliberate attempts to remove herself from the experiences of her childhood:

Hyland essentially divorced herself from her relatives in her teens: ”I made a very deliberate decision to cut myself off from my family.” She changed schools, took elocution lessons and pulled herself up into the middle class by her fingernails, training first as a lawyer and then, aged 35, making the leap into fiction. – From M. J. Hyland Interview, Sunday Business Post, 2 August, 2009.

While Hyland rejects the notion of her work being ‘Australian’ or even of being identified by nationality, her work has been included in the Reading Australia 200 list due to the period during which she lived and studied in Australia. Her rejection of a nationalistic basis for her influences further strengthens its universality and significance in the wider world.Carry Me Down is set in rural Ireland and in the high rise commission flats of Ballymun, where Hyland herself lived as a young girl. However, the novel should not be regarded a memoir or isolated to that time or place, but rather as a reflection and exploration of broader universal themes. Nonetheless, students may be interested in reading the following article to consider how Hyland’s life has informed the preoccupations and settings of her work: The Hot Seat: M. J. Hyland in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October, 2006.

In the activities below, students will be encouraged to explore the characterisation as a means of identifying the universal significance of Carry Me Down. The focus here also builds on previous activities, especially Activities 2 and 3, and foregrounds Assessment Task 1 (PDF, 148KB).

Activity 6: Hothouse research – the context for Carry Me Down

The context of living in poverty in 1970s Ireland, within the Egan family, is the essence of John Egan’s narration. However, the study of a novel also demands that students explore how the key themes and characters relate to their own local and contemporary concerns, as well as the broader universal context.

In this activity, students will work in groups, to research the social context and themes arising in Carry Me Down. This is intended to be a ‘hothouse’ activity where students work to a strict time limit and accountability within a group. The identified topics (though you may wish to extend the list) include:

  • Living in Gorey and Ballymun, Dublin;
  • Global developments in the 1970s – the key social, economic, cultural and/or political movements of the decade;
  • Personality or physical disorders that may explain John’s peculiarities;
  • Lies, lie detection and body language;
  • Puberty, family relationships and the Oedipus complex.

Each group will:

  • Either prepare a two minute summary of the topic for the class with an additional two minutes articulating the significance of that topic to the novel;
  • Or prepare and upload a two page electronic summary.

Whatever format chosen, students must provide:

  • Four resources (including videos, Wikipedia and other) informing their understanding of the topic;
  • Between two and four images, screenshots or graphics;
  • Approximately 300 words of text;
  • Three direct quotations from the novel illustrating or connecting to their theme;
  • An argument as to how this topic is (or is not) relevant in contemporary Australia;
  • An argument as to how this topic is (or is not) universally relevant.
    (ACELR001)   (ACELR004)

Activity 7: Characterisation in Carry Me Down

(This activity replicates Activity 5 in the unit on The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner).

Another way of identifying and mapping out key ideas and themes is to begin with comparative character analysis. In this activity students will examine the text, identifying data upon which they can make claims about the characters and themes of the novel, and the extent of their understanding and knowledge applying their collective research from Activity 6 above.

  • Divide the class into four groups (or eight according to the size and nature of your class) so that each group takes responsibility for the analysis of one of the four central characters: Helen, Michael, John and Granny. (You may wish to allocate the other characters to additional groups.)
  • Groups will complete the table below with textual evidence in relation to their selected character, and then complete a jigsaw activity or electronic publication as a means of sharing.
Textual evidence revealing something significant about their character (Ensure evidence is selected across Chapters 1 to 37.)   Character’s name:
Four key pieces of dialogue spoken by or about that character.
Four key phrases used to show their full body movement/actions  (physicality).
Four key phrases used to show their facial movements in speech or eating.
Five key adjectives or adverbs relating to that characters (used sparingly so this may be difficult).
Two descriptions of what they wear, what they read, what they eat, what they enjoy doing. 
Three words to describe your character’s relationship to the other three central characters. Helen:
How is this character significant to the narrative and themes in the novel?
What are your feelings toward this character? Are you empathetic, critical or indifferent? Explain with reference to textual evidence collected in this table.

(ACELR003)   (ACELR004)   (ACELR005)   (ACELR006)   (ACELR007)   (ACELR008)

Assessment task 1: (Receptive)

Create a domestic vignette in the style of M. J. Hyland
(This assessment task is a version of Assessment Task 1 in the unit on The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner, though this task addresses AC: Literature Unit 1, rather than Unit 2.)

Students select any ONE of the images below of families to create a vignette of a family interacting in a way that is in some way universal, and in the literary style of M. J. Hyland. Students should refer to previous activities relating to literary style, character development, point-of-view and narration (Activities 4 to 7).

The purpose of the task is to demonstrate capacity to create a family vignette told in the present tense from first-person perspective, imitating Hyland’s literary style.

Step 1:

As an example, read the vignette from ‘We go into the kitchen . . . ‘ (p. 195) to ‘. . . wash your hands for tea’ (p. 198). This illustrates the style students should aim for in their imaginative writing and it may be useful to collectively analyse the literary features they will adopt.

Step 2: 
Students select a photograph from the table below, selecting the character from whose perspective the story will be told. There is no definite order for the following questions students consider as they plan and explore the possibilities of their vignette:

  • Who is this narrator and what makes him or her distinctive or interesting?
  • Who are the other family members who will feature in the vignette? (Focus on a minimum of two and a maximum of four characters, including the narrator)
  • Who are each of the other characters and what makes them distinctive or interesting?
  • How are they related, and what are the distinguishing features of their relationships?
  • What is the context/time; place; social, political and economic circumstances?
  • What history of tensions, goodwill, happiness, insecurity and/or events influence or surface in the present moment?
  • What influences the narrator’s perspective making him or her ‘unreliable’?
  • What style of language and vocabulary (including slang) will be used to enliven the dialogue and help the reader learn more about what distinguishes each character?
  • How will the scene open, develop into a revelation of some kind and then close with a degree of ambiguity? (Note the structure of the example suggested on pages 195-198, especially the use of ‘unwriterly’ prose.)

Step 3:
Students should be cautioned to avoid stereotypes, allowing from some doubt, irony or even humour, to create their characters and the scene.

  • Students should refer to the conventions used by M. J. Hyland to indicate dialogue. This includes indentation and punctuation.
  • Like M. J. Hyland, they may wish to write more freely and then go back and cull their writing to fit within the word limit (as in Activity 4).

NB: Students should produce a vignette of between 750 and 1,000 words. Please direct students to consult the rubric (PDF, 148KB) that stresses the importance of abiding by word limits and other assessment factors.

1. Photo by Kevin Dooley.

2. From Amandajm.

3. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

4. Photo by Trent Kelley.

5. From macinate.

6. From Wonderlane.

7. Photo by Stefan Schmitz.

8. From Nordiska museet.

9. Photo by Colin Campbell.

10. From Bread for the World.

11. From Apple Jia.

12. From Taz.

Please note that this assessment task is a version of the Assessment Task 1 in the unit on The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner.

Synthesising ideas

Students have already engaged with and studied Hyland’s literary style; this is critical for success in this essay. They will be required to demonstrate their understanding of each of the following:

  • First-person narrative (in preference to second or third-person point of view);
  • the notion of the unreliable narrator;
  • the use of present tense (in preference to past tense);
  • characterisation and relationships within the novel;
  • the context in which the novel is set.

Further to this knowledge and understanding, task analysis of the essay topic may be necessary. Students are required to argue the relative success of Hyland’s capacity to evoke John’s perspective on his world and family. Students may need to be reminded that it is not Hyland’s perspective, but rather the voice of John, the unreliable narrator whose perspective evokes the world around him. It is Hyland’s skill as a writer that creates John’s voice and inner monologue as the narrator.


Assessment task 2 (Productive): Formal literary essay

To what extent do you agree with this reviewer’s assessment of Carry Me Down? Make close reference to the novel to support your discussion.

M. J. Hyland’s first-person present-tense narrative so successfully evokes John’s perspective on his world and family.’

(from Ruth Scurr’s review of Carry Me Down, The Telegraph, 30 April 2006)

Students are advised to consult the rubric (PDF, 127KB) to ensure they address the criteria for this assessment task.


Composite assessment task (Receptive and Productive): Formal literary essay

The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner and Carry Me Down by M. J. Hyland

Please note that this task addresses Learning Outcomes and Content Descriptors for Senior Secondary Literature – Unit 2, though it might easily be adapted to current local needs and syllabuses. The assessment rubric (PDF, 148KB) should be consulted before commencing the essay, ensuring criteria for Unit 2 are addressed and word limits observed.

This Kakfa quote, ‘A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us,’ has been used in reference to both Garner’s and Hyland’s fiction.

With close reference to The Children’s Bach and Carry Me Down, discuss how both authors construct domestic spaces and disruptions where ‘ice axes’ break the ‘sea frozen’ within central characters. Your essay must be between 750 and 1,000 words.