To her legion of very ardent fans, the news comes as little surprise. And in a year where literary blockbusters and blistering debuts are crowding bookshelves, Marian Keyes is among the very best, literally.
Last night, the Dún Laoghaire writer was awarded the Writer of the Year award at the British Book Awards, an annual ceremony known colloquially as the Nibbies.
Many great authors – among them Sally Rooney, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jane Fallon and Richard Osman – made up the awards’ glittering shortlist, but the highest honour of the night went to Keyes, in recognition of her considerable contributions to the publishing industry.
The momentous win comes a year after Keyes was presented with the Author of the Year accolade at the 2021 Irish Book Awards. And, after the release of her 18th novel, Again, Rachel earlier this year, she has easily cemented her reputation as the high priestess of commercial fiction.
An instant bestseller on release, Again, Rachel is a sequel to the 1998 classic Rachel’s Holiday – the book that officially planted Keyes on the literary map. In both books, Keyes has used her own experiences of addiction and mental health challenges to bring acuity to the story of Rachel Walsh, a woman now working as head counsellor at the Cloisters, the rehab facility she first attended. In Rachel, Keyes had created not only an unreliable narrator, but an imperfect, complex and highly relatable character.
Though Keyes’s empathy and insight are doubtless integral to the appeal of her novels, she has also long managed a literary high-wire act that few have perfected.
It’s long been established that Keyes masterfully excavates the darkest corners of the human condition – addiction, eating disorders, suicide, grief, child loss – and yet still delivers a charming, joyful read. It’s quite something to deliver such astute accounts of the frailties of humans; quite another to turn them into warm, readable stories.
By now, it’s an established motif to use a glossy, contemporaneous and familiar setting to usher in a Trojan horse full of heavier, perhaps uncomfortable subjects.
Above all else, Keyes manages to elicit a laugh on almost every page of prose, even when writing about the darkest and most despairing moments in life. From coining immortal terms such as “feathery strokers” to a classic takedown of the New Man, Keyes is consistently the very best company.
And yet, in turning her energies to the challenges and stories of everyday women, often in the domestic or romantic realm, Keyes has long been subjected to a sort of literary snobbishness.
Keyes herself has long made mention of the constraints of the “chick-lit” tag, and it’s only in the last few years that she has been described as one of the country’s literary greats.
“For so long, anything that was the concern of women was automatically not important. It was second-class,” Keyes told the Irish Independent earlier this year.
“And I definitely think women’s voices have become louder. The slight shift away from peak misogyny has facilitated work done by women, about women, to be taken more seriously.”
By now, Keyes has reached a sort of “elder stateswoman” status in the business, and is a generation above a slew of new Irish female writers, all of whom breathlessly revere her.
The generosity always goes both ways: there’s barely an Irish book that doesn’t feature a generous blurb from her on its cover.
The Keyesian DNA is found across several of her Irish successors, from the Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling series by Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght to Naoise Dolan, Louise Nealon and Paul Howard. Even further afield, it could be argued that a vast swathe of commercial writers – from Meg Mason and Gail Honeyman to Jodi Picoult and Candace Bushnell – have travelled comfortably in the writer’s jetstream.
The greatest trick Keyes has pulled off is making her 18 novels seem as though they were easily written, in a voice and style that seems effortless and casual. Yet as many a writer would readily attest, it takes a certain, singular skillset to make the art of creating popular novels look this easy and natural.