Marian Keyes stays in sparkling, moving form: The Woman Who Stole My Life
Review: Does anyone get what they deserve when very bad things happen to normal people?
Photograph: Barry McCall
The Woman Who Stole My Life
In the opening pages of Marian Keyes’s new novel, The Woman Who Stole My Life, this is what we learn about the narrator, Stella Sweeney: she’s 41, she used to be a beautician, she recently returned from New York to live in the Dublin suburb where she grew up, she has two teenage children and an ex-husband, and she’s attempting, not very successfully, to write a follow-up to her bestselling inspirational book, One Blink at a Time.
We also learn that, four years earlier, she was almost totally paralysed for nearly a year by the medical condition Guillain-Barré syndrome, an experience that led not just to the collapse of her marriage but also, eventually, to the aforementioned book and then to a glamorous American life of talkshows, book tours and personal trainers. A life that seems very far away now, as Stella eats Jaffa Cakes in her bedroom in the fictional suburb of Ferrytown, aware that she is “all washed up”.
But this isn’t a straightforward rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags story. As ever with Keyes, things are a lot more complicated than that. In the first half of the book the narrative moves between Stella’s current life and the months she spent helpless in her hospital bed. In the present-day story Stella is trying to both write a new book and sort out her personal life, aided by her scarily practical sister Karen. Then her ex-husband, Ryan, suddenly announces that he’s going to give away all his possessions, including his house and his bathroom-design business. He wants to create “spiritual art” and intends to prove that karma exists by letting the universe provide him with everything he needs. And it seems there’s nothing that Stella or her equally horrified son, Jeffrey, can do to stop him.
Depiction of illnessTheir attempts to do so are interspersed with flashbacks to her time in hospital, which present a powerful and frequently terrifying depiction of what it might be like to find yourself, as Stella says, “buried alive in my own body. As tragedies go, it’s quite a good one, no?” Unable to move anything apart from her eyelids, and unsure if she’ll ever recover, Stella veers between fear, frustration, loneliness and boredom. Her parents and sister offer their own kind of support, while Ryan, Jeffrey and his sister Betsy struggle to cope. Hope comes in the form of a charismatic neurologist called Mannix Taylor, who makes an effort to communicate properly with Stella and is impressed by her stoical attitude. It’s a relationship that will change her life.
This double narrative is perfectly paced, unfolding just enough information in each short section to gradually create what seems like a full picture of Stella’s experiences. The book feels slightly less taut when it stops moving between the two time periods and focuses on Stella’s literary career and life in New York, but only then do we really discover just how she became a writer and how she finally ended up back in Dublin. It’s skilful and complex storytelling that will keep readers glued to the pages.
For nearly 20 years, Keyes has been writing hugely entertaining books about big and often dark subjects; her last novel, The Mystery of Mercy Close, is one of the best evocations of serious depression I’ve read. In The Woman Who Stole My Life she looks at what happens when very bad things happen to good – well, normal – people. Does anyone get what they deserve? And if they don’t, how do we deal with that, especially if we’re the ones who seem to have been given more than our share of tragedy?
But it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Keyes’s work that although it deals with serious illness, marital breakdown and professional disappointment – and does so with sensitivity and insight – The Woman Who Stole My Life is very funny. I particularly liked Karen’s attempts to give Stella a makeover by making her buy a pair of “lady chinos”, trousers that have a strangely powerful effect on all who see them, from her parents to the local GP (“Lady chinos? Who would have thought?”). She’s also a master at creating amusingly exaggerated characters who still feel like real people, such as Karen and her garda husband, who is referred to by everyone, including his wife, by his full name. (At one stage Karen rings Stella and says, “You know Enda Mulreid?” “Your husband? Er . . . I do,” is Stella’s reply.)
Sense of the absurdI’ve long praised Keyes’s ability to move seamlessly from hilarious comedy to genuine darkness, sometimes in the same paragraph, and it’s a skill brilliantly showcased here. Stella’s narrative voice is very different from that of Keyes’s last heroine, the wonderfully waspish Helen Walsh, in The Mystery of Mercy Close. But even when she’s lying helpless on a hospital bed Stella has a wry sense of the absurd that stops the book ever becoming vaguely sentimental. When Mannix starts asking her for advice, she is “extremely startled by my new incarnation as the wise paralysed woman of Ferrytown”. But as this moving and witty book reminds us, we can never predict what will happen – whatever we feel we deserve.
Anna Carey’s latest novel, Rebecca Is Always Right, is published by the O’Brien Press