Marian Keyes: the master of authentic female characters
In ‘The Break’, Keyes shows again why she gains readers’ affections like nobody else
Marian Keyes understands something essential: there’s subversion in joy. Photograph: Rune Hellestad/Getty Images
On the front cover of The Break, the latest novel by Marian Keyes, is an etching of a small, handheld suitcase. It’s tiny – certainly not enough storage space to sustain a man throughout a six-month separation from his wife – and it’s swamped by a white background. It looks abandoned and, as The Break goes on, it grows in significance.
Amy is in her mid-40s, mother to three daughters (one taken in from her feckless brother) with some vague and unknowable job in public relations. Her not perfect but secure life unravels when her husband, Hugh, suggests a short separation. Hugh, still grieving after the loss of his father, wants to travel. When the six months are up, he will return to Amy and their life together. Amy is, understandably, a bit unhappy about all of this.
Or maybe not unhappy enough? In my favourite, and probably the funniest, sequence of the book, she goes for dinner with friends, who upbraid her for not being more bitter. As a writer, Keyes has always been keenly aware of the performative aspects of womanhood: the discipline required, the gap between our interior lives and the image we present. At one stage, Amy flicks through another woman’s Facebook photos – the manipulative prism of social media recurs thematically throughout The Break – to see how she goes about “being a woman”. It is a question that Keyes has dedicated herself to throughout her long writing career, and to dismiss her novels as “chick-lit” denies her truest and most substantial achievement.
Suspicious of romance
If The Break is romantic fiction, which it could be classified as by people who like to classify these things, then it reveals an unusual suspicion of romance, conservatism and traditional family values. In a genre typically associated with inoffensiveness Keyes, refreshingly, doesn’t care who she offends. It’s not a huge reveal to say the novel deals with abortion in a way that is staunchly pro-choice.
Realistic detail in an abortion storyline is tricky, but Keyes urges the reader to look closer when others, and a worrying chunk of Irish society, look away. She walks us through a series of liminal spaces – the doctor’s office, the clinical hotel room, the airport – but never in a way that is dour or sensationalised. Small moments, such as a weakened body being placed on a luggage trolley, do the work. Keyes’s cynicism and anger shines through these passages. It’s all rigged against us, but why? To what advantage? It is an indictment of a poisonous, barbaric law, but it is also an intimate portrait of an individual. It feels authentic because Keyes’s fiction has always been populated by women who feel authentic.
Taste of freedom
There’s a line in JG Farrell’s Troubles, another ostensibly comic novel, that goes “What misery to be an Irishwoman, to be living in Ireland, to live all of one’s life in Ireland beneath the steady rain and the despair of winter and the boredom, the boredom.”
In a country that demonstrates a general, but consistent, disregard for its women, encountering Keyes’s writing, at a young age, can feel like your first taste of freedom. To meet female characters like this – messy, contradictory, funny about their failings, free of shame – is an intense relief. Amy, like all of Keyes’s creations, has an appetite and unapologetically pursues pleasure. She is in her 40s, a mother, but it is not an account of an unwanted woman. Keyes writes about abortion, but the character is not defined by the abortion. Her literary heroines don’t give up, they keep going, independent, and determined to enjoy their lives whatever way they please. In a literary culture defined by a bizarre idea of edginess, Keyes understands something essential: there’s subversion in joy.
Keyes circles back on questions of love, marriage, family and infidelity. She does so with great forgiveness and understanding – in life, she knows, things go wrong and mistakes are made. The Break, although overlong and slightly overstuffed with characters, is still a pleasure. She writes women who are absolutely themselves, even when society tries to insist they be something else. By refusing to submit to misery and boredom, by defying the traditional Irish female narrative, Keyes proves once again she can gain readers’ affections like nobody else.