Middle-aged woman, black hair, big smile, pale Irish skin, beaming and holding a copy of a book .
In her new novel Marian Keyes revisits one of her most-loved characters (Photo: Twitter; Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksFebruary 13, 2022

The sequel to Rachel’s Holiday is out this week and you’re going to fecking love it

Middle-aged woman, black hair, big smile, pale Irish skin, beaming and holding a copy of a book .
In her new novel Marian Keyes revisits one of her most-loved characters (Photo: Twitter; Design: Tina Tiller)

Scarlett Cayford gives thanks for Again, Rachel, a fitting follow-up to Marian Keyes’s phenomenal 1998 novel about addiction, self-deception and recovery. Oh – and romance. 

The start of this review contains a spoiler for a revelation that comes in the initial pages of Again, Rachel. Please read no further if you want to remain completely unspoiled.

Let’s not delay the inevitable reveal: in Again, Rachel, Luke and Rachel are no longer together. This isn’t too cruel a spoiler, since Keyes makes this revelation within the first 50 pages of the book, but it’ll be painful for any fellow long-time re-readers of the original classic. I took it pretty hard. But then again – if you’re a Keyes fan you’ll have learned long ago to take the bitter with the sweet. Husbands cheat. Best friends lie. Addicts relapse. 

Again, Rachel is a book written for those of us already inducted to the Cult of Keyes. It’s a nice cult; if you’re not already a member, you should consider joining. It comes with a great selection of snacks and some really excellent clothes. It’s full of soft Irish aphorisms and in-jokes; bad things happen, but happy endings are guaranteed. It’s a place to come when you’re not running away from the world, exactly, you’d just like to bear witness to an alternate version. 

I couldn’t wait for the book to be released so begged, borrowed and stole my way into a proof copy, which I read in one day, in MIQ, staring out the window at the tumbled Christchurch Cathedral and counting the minutes until I could hug my own personal Mammy Walsh. Keyes needn’t worry about the royalties though – I’m sure I’ll own at least three copies of Again, Rachel in my lifetime, if the lineup of dog-eared neon Keyes paperbacks in my bookshelf is anything to go by. Keyes has reliably made up the backbone of my literary consumption in any one year: a thriller, a YA, some sort of literary chart-topper, Last Chance Saloon, a failed attempt to read the Women’s Prize shortlist, Anybody Out There, lather, rinse, repeat. I go back to her like I come back home: regularly, to recover, to remember. When I haven’t revisited the Walsh family in a while, I feel the lack. I need a bit of Clare’s energy. I miss Helen’s sarcasm. A touch of Anna’s woo-woo will see me right. They’re a reliable stand-in family whenever my own is feeling particularly far away. 

It’s slightly ridiculous for me to talk about Rachel’s Holiday as being part of who I am. I was 11 when it came out, and I can’t remember ever owning it in hardback, so let’s say I was about 13 years old, in 1990, when I first began the process of committing it to memory. I vividly remember reading about Luke running the tip of his erection over Rachel’s nipples and thinking, “Ah, yes, sex, I understand, excellent.” I snorted my teenage way through the descriptions of drugs, and even read some Patrick Cavanaugh, Rachel’s preferred poet. I might not have understood everything, but I felt everything, from the body issues to the blow-up chairs to the poorly-attended parties. I was also – at 13 – highly willing to believe every word of the pseudonymous unreliable narrator. 

Two book covers, both in tones of bright pink and navy.
(Images: Supplied)

At 34 you’d hope to find me a little less susceptible to Rachel’s persuasive charms, but alas. Keyes’s neat touch with narrative and Rachel’s deliciously authentic voice swept me along in exactly the same way. She’s not with Luke (and that’s his fault). She’s in a relationship with Quin (and he’s the right man for her). She’s in control of her addiction (and has been for 20 years). 

In Again, Rachel, Keyes uses a familiar pattern: we’re inside the head of Rachel, occupying a frantic and fabulous present, until a turn of events forces her to examine the history that led her here. She’s clean and sober and in a two-year relationship with Quin. She’s a senior addiction counsellor at the Cloisters, the same place that course-corrected her to sobriety a number of years ago. She’s a passionate gardener and a compulsive shopper, and she’s happy. But when Luke’s mother dies and Narky Joey invites her to the funeral, ensuing events force her to confront the Luke of her present while taking us back through the years that have passed since we left Luke on one knee on a New York sidewalk, asking Rachel if a ride was out of the question. Readers should be warned that what has happened to Luke and Rachel covers tough emotional territory (again, the classic Keyes cocktail). 

Keyes has spent plenty of time with both Rachel and Luke. She knows her characters well. Her heroes are always fatally flawed; Rachel remains highly susceptible to the Disease of More, once deployed against cocaine, now more likely to land on sneakers and gardening trowels. More interesting is Keyes’s willingness to explore Luke’s shortcomings. In Rachel’s Holiday, he is a denim-clad, strutty, sexy dreamboat, with extremely good knob competence and a solid streak of goodness running all the way from his thick head of hair to his crotch. He is occasionally impatient, and plays some role in enabling Rachel’s downfall, but he is still the knight in shining leather at the end of the piece, ready to fall back in with the damsel who has allowed herself to be saved. He’s lovely, but single-dimensional. 

In Again, Rachel, the rosy-tinted glasses are off. He can be cruel. He’s wounded and unreasonable. And as he swaggers back into Rachel’s life, we see him through the eyes of Quin, Rachel’s new man, who bears little to no resemblance to Luke. Quin wears lightweight tracksuits and installs sound systems. He likes to hike and wild swim. He favours fancy things and vintage cars and would certainly not own a timeshare in a pair of trousers. He’s no Feathery Stroker, but – in the incomparable voice of Helen – looks like the kind of man who might own a spork. Rachel has been candid about how deeply she was in love with Luke; Quin can’t reconcile the depths of her feelings with a man he views as anachronistic, dull and a bit thick. 

In Rachel’s Holiday, Luke and Rachel’s relationship is defined by passion and excess. She meets him at the peak of her partying, and even though he is calmer than her, nearly all of their meetings happen when one or both are artificially enhanced. Their sex scenes are vivid and raw (and highly compelling to 13-year-olds living in Devonport). The chemistry they experience goes beyond appearance or sense. In Again, Rachel, they are older and more careful. Their reconciliations and attempts at friendship come about only through fighting through their instincts, which would have them hurt each other. Keyes does a beautiful job of exploring their painful reconnection, and the layers of adult intention with spiteful behaviour. She’s not afraid to shine a light on how deeply tragic her tragic lovers can be.  

It’s not all about Luke. Rachel has taken the place of Sister Josephine in the Cloisters, and presides over her own flock of wayward addicts. Borrowing some tools from Rachel’s Holiday, Keyes supplements the main plot with recovering characters perched on broken chairs, navigating their own charged histories under Rachel’s watchful eye. There’s Bronte, the heroin-and-horse addicted aristocrat, and Chalkie, the politically-charged and cocaine-powered activist, and many more, all at different stages in their recovery journey and all ready to provide foils to Rachel’s own journey outside the doors of her workplace.

As ever, Keyes navigates addiction with the deft touch of someone who has been there. The 25th anniversary edition of Rachel’s Holiday, released last year, includes a bang-on note from Dawn French: “In Rachel, Marian invites us into a very intimate place, a place we suspect is deep inside Marian … Marian lets us understand Rachel and all her clamorous demons, most especially her powerful shame.” English novelist David Nicholls, likewise: “Marian absolutely nails the gulf between how the addict sees themselves and how they’re being seen by those that care for them.” Irish YA writer Louise O’Neill: “I read Rachel’s Holiday after I was hospitalised for anorexia and bulimia. There’s a scene in which Rachel takes coke alone and my reaction was scornful – who does drugs by themselves, like a loser? And a tiny voice inside me whispered, you do this. You use food in the same furtive way. You’re an addict, just like Rachel.” 

Again, Rachel also puts the Walsh family front and centre, thank fucking god. Thank god, too, that she avoided any temptation to kill one of them off (you must agree, it would have supplied some plot). Mammy Walsh is fabulous and guilt-trippy, planning a big party to celebrate herself. Each sister gets a supplemental storyline – and since many of them now have their own families, the whole book is rich with subplots (including, as a taster, swinging, pregnancy and shower sex). Brigit, Rachel’s long-suffering bestie, makes a return. Nola, her sponsor, is still front and centre, with her ridey husband. All your favourites are back, making Again, Rachel a powerful exercise in nostalgia, even as it brings in plenty of new and surprising action. 

I read Again, Rachel with trepidation as much as excitement only because Rachel’s Holiday ended so perfectly. But I needn’t have worried – Marian Keyes is an author in total control of her oeuvre. And – critically – she cares about her readers as much as her characters. We’re all in safe hands. Again, Rachel packages up pain and pleasure in the way only Keyes can, with enough plot twists to keep things interesting while keeping the reader comfortable in a universe of familiar voices. 

Not to be too heavy-handed with my MIQ metaphor, but reading Again, Rachel was a homecoming for me: time had passed, things had changed, I was different, but I recognised Rachel like a family member. 

I suppose a sequel is out of the question? 

Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph, $37) can be pre-ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington and should be available from February 15. 

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