Marian Keyes. Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images.
Marian Keyes. Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images.

BooksJune 25, 2019

‘She knits her books of her bones and her blood.’ An appreciation of Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes. Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images.
Marian Keyes. Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images.

Marian Keyes is a stone-cold legend: terrifically funny and emotionally intelligent, and never afraid of the dark. She deserves all the prizes. In lieu of that, here’s a heartfelt piece by Scarlett Cayford, who grew up steeped in Keyes’ stories and sensibilities.

My first encounter with Marian Keyes was in a bedroom in Devonport in the late 90s, where I plucked the thick purple volume Sushi for Beginners from my friend’s bookshelf, and took it home to read. This was not an uncommon move for me, since I am a voracious reader. The fact that I did not return it (sorry, Georgie) was also typical, since I believe all the books in the world to belong to me by right, much like the swans on the Thames to the Queen. The unusual bit of this was in the impact this move had on my writing style, my sense of humour, my innermost self. The unusual part leaks into the present, because I think it is probably truthful to say that I have never, since that day, not been reading Marian Keyes. 

Sushi for Beginners is not a book that ends for me. It is my own Irish Neverending Story, though where I remember The Neverending Story for a giant flying dog, I remember Sushi For Beginners for advice on conditioning your pubic hair. When Ashling flings her handbag off the wharf and turns into Jack’s warm embrace, I flip the pages back. Sometimes to the beginning, and sometimes back to the middle, to a scene I like the best, whether that be Oscar visiting Lisa and finding her changed, or Bo getting his first job, or Lisa whipping off her white Ghost dress to get off with the choc-ice model on the hotel room floor. If I walk past it in a secondhand book store, I buy it. I have bought it many times over for friends. I have it on my Kindle. I think about it when I eat sushi and when I regard the width of my waist in the mirror. Sushi for Beginners does not live on a bookshelf for me, but face down, spine cracked, ready to be picked up again. At this point I could probably just about rewrite it from memory, should all copies be burned and Marian Keyes cast into the sun and fiction in general expunged from the surface of this emotional planet. And if I couldn’t do it alone, then my sisters would help. 

Because, after that day, there was Marian Keyes in nearly every room you walked into in our childhood home – Angels cracked open on the toilet tank, Last Chance Saloon slid between the cushions of the couch, a copy of Anybody Out There in the footwell of the backseat of the family car. We rotated these books like we rotated clothes and peccadillos, and there were strict rules. Once you closed a book, you no longer had rights to it, but if you set it down open, then it was yours until you closed it. We bookmarked each other’s places, and laughed out loud at the same bits. We went through a period of speaking in short cute sentences like This Charming Man’s damaged but delightful Lola. Sometimes we still do it. It’s funny, see. Am convinced this is the most sensible and life-affirming way to converse. Must research, when not feeling rough as badger’s arse. 

There was probably something a bit strange about three sisters living in Devonport, contemplating alternate uses for Pantene, expostulating Irish phrases in New World (“Here’s your change!”; “That’s grand, so!”) wondering why a melon ball salad in Marks and Spencer could bring forth feelings of nostalgia despite never having been to a Marks and Spencer and not really knowing how melon could even be formed into balls, and yet – there we were. It’s not as bleak and beautiful as the Brontes in their parsonage, and there will never be a cultural canon built around us like the Mitfords, but perhaps there should be. Perhaps Marian could be persuaded to write it since she, after all, is one of the great writers of the bonds of sisterhood.

The five Walsh sisters (Claire, Rachel, the lickarse whose name I can never remember and also probably most closely resemble, Anna and Helen) make up the backbone of some of her funniest, saddest and most raw writing, from Watermelon, her first ever novel, through to The Mystery of Mercy Close. It is a rare book that can make you both cry and laugh out loud, but nearly every Walsh novel has done that for me. I am moved to laughter by her words easily and often, but I weep when Luke and Rachel reunite in Rachel’s Holiday, and when Anna desperately seeks out the lost love of her life in Anybody Out There. In an interview Keyes once said, “For feel-good fiction to work, there has to be an element of darkness”, and her characters are her best expression of that truth. There is no such thing as a boring woman in a Marian Keyes book. They might be jealous, or damaged, or spiky, or cruel, or silly, but they’re always multi-faceted and redeemable. You want to know them, if only to throw something at them. 

Marian is a much-vaunted popular author, but she struggles with critical recognition, and has courted controversy by addressing this. Despite writing comically for over 20 years, she has never been the recipient of the Wodehouse Prize for comic novels, which has been won by only three female writers – Helen Fielding, Marina Lewycka and Hannah Rothschild – since it was launched in 2000. In 2018, Keyes told an audience at the Hay festival: “Say what you like about me but my books are funny. What more can I do to qualify?

“Things that women love are just automatically dismissed as frivolous nonsense. Football could be considered as frivolous nonsense but it’s treated as hard news in the newspapers. So I think by giving the men the prizes, it just reinforces that the men are more important… I love many men but that doesn’t mean that I don’t see the sexist imbalance.” She’s right. And frankly, I think Wodehouse would have agreed. 

I was never told that there were books I should read, and books I shouldn’t, except for one summer holiday, during which I repeatedly stole a family friend’s Jackie Collins, which so turned my head with its violent vigorous sex scenes that I don’t think I made it outside for the duration of the break. There were only books I had read, and those I hadn’t, and I despaired that even as the former mounted so too did the latter, exponentially. I knew that there were books that impressed people (thick ones, boring ones, old ones) and books that did not impress people (Harry Potter), but none of that factored into my enjoyment. Little Women is perfect any way you slice it. Moby Dick is frankly unreadable (unless you are a fisherman or a whale). 

I don’t remember when it first filtered into my consciousness that there was something called chicklit, only that one day I was aware of it. They usually had slightly larger type; they usually had pink or purple covers. They nearly always had female protagonists, and they were the kinds of books I could gobble down during a single Auckland to Christchurch flight because they were enjoyable. I wanted to inject them, I wanted to peel back the foil and eat them in one sitting like an Easter egg. I wanted to dive headfirst into their world and emerge changed, speaking a little bit differently, thinking a little oddly, dipped and spun and tweaked into a slightly different shape. They made me hopeful and worldly and probably slightly better educated on sex than I should have been. 

And then there is Marian herself, who knits her books of her bones and blood. If you follow her on Twitter then you know that she has a language of her own: part Irish (which I’ll own is also spoken by other people), part anachronism, part foible, part fancy. And she is dark, and sad, as well, painting vivid pictures of her own depressions and addictions onto characters like Rachel and Helen Walsh. She has had whole chunks of her life taken from her by her mental health, both before and during her writing career, and used those periods to craft plots and persons who always ultimately survive, all while her writing is described by some as “forgettable froth”.

In an interview in the Guardian in 2012, she said, “I used to feel defensive when people would say ‘yes, but your books have happy endings’, as if that made them worthless, or unrealistic. Some people do get happy endings, even if it’s only for a while. I would rather never be published again than write a downbeat ending. I couldn’t have something permanent in the world like a book with something that accepted that life is as painful as it really is.” It would be easy for someone who has suffered like she has to let her writing grow similarly dark, but she refuses. 

I love her for the way she has embraced social media, because it means I do not have to wait two years for a Keyes top-up, I just have to go on Twitter and read her commentary on Strictly Come Dancing or furniture modifications or skincare. And when the Irish abortion referendum was in the offing, she threw herself into support with her whole heart and entire Twitter feed, and then her latest book (The Break, which had been written some time before) was published and it transpired that she had also devoted a whole plotline to the plight of Irish women forced to travel to have an abortion. With Marian Keyes there is never any need to dig deep into academic discussion about whether an artist and their art should be regarded as separate entities because Marian and her characters are one and the same. She has spun both her darkness and her light into print. Out of impossible unhappinesses, she has written her own happy ending, again and again. 

I am made up of the books I have read and thank God, because that makes me a little bit Marian. As I write this, I feel pretty sure she will read it, because she follows me on Twitter, and because she is always one for making her fans feel seen. So – hi Marian. Met you once at book signing. Said my hair “was nice”. Threw up straight afterwards like obsessive crazy person. 

The copy of Rachel’s Holiday you signed that day has been stolen by my sister, but that seems only fitting.

The Break, by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph, $38) is available at Unity Books.

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