Tuesday 17 September 2019

Novel with a strong moral heart and plenty of laughs

Fiction: The Break, Marian Keyes, Michael Joseph, hardback, 570 pages, €14.99

Marian Keyes
Marian Keyes
The Break by Marian Keyes

Edel Coffey

Marian Keyes's 13th novel, The Break, begins with a compelling opening. Amy, a PR woman in her 40s, receives the shock news that her husband, Hugh, wants a break from their marriage. He doesn't want to break up, he tells her; just a break, for a defined period of six months, to find himself, and maybe to sleep with other women, too, and then he'll come home and they can pick up where they left off. Otherwise known as having your cake and eating it.

As beginnings go, it's compelling.

Hugh is rapidly dispensed to southeast Asia and his imagined fate of young, beautiful women in bikinis, and the rest of the book focuses on how Amy copes with the fallout of his departure, and the realisation that her marriage was not as solid as she had thought.

The reader is on Amy's side from the beginning, but quickly we start to wonder if Amy have to take some of the blame for Hugh's crisis, which makes the book a much more interesting prospect.

The book makes the case for marriage in an age of break-ups and hook-ups. Keyes makes a convincing argument for sticking it out, presenting us with all of the positive aspects, such as durable friendship, understanding, loyalty, commitment and getting each other's in-jokes. But she is honest, too, about what can happen when lust and novelty collide with boredom and familiarity, and it's not always pretty.

And thus, a third strand enters the story, in the form of the English journalist Josh Rowan, a handsome, rugged northerner with whom Amy has had an ongoing flirtation for the past couple of years. Keyes uses this storyline as a way to explore a different kind of affair, the emotional one, and the damage it can wreak on relationships, even if - officially - nobody has done anything wrong. It's thought-provoking stuff.

Keyes always has an impressive cast of characters in her novels, particularly when it comes to families and Amy's mum steals the show here as she struggles to cope with her husband's Alzheimer's, her late-life desire to break free and express herself, and her accidental internet fame.

Keyes uses the many reactions to Amy's break-up to examine modern attitudes towards marriage and sex. Some of Amy's friends make 'go girl' noises when they find out, and suggest she should take advantage of the break to play the field and get straight back in the saddle, so to speak. Keyes remains true to her tried-and-tested style of slowly unveiling her plot, and bringing together the 'before' and 'after' of the story in a satisfying reveal for the reader.

Another by-now definitive trait of Keyes's books is the presence of serious issues beneath the humour and this book is packed with them. The novel wears them lightly for the most part, from Amy's dad's Alzheimer's to the characters who shirk their parental responsibilities.

The only storyline that feels a little forced is the one where a character has to travel to the UK to have an abortion. Considering how peripheral the storyline is to the main narrative, it feels disproportionately loaded and at times almost didactic. A sample line reads: "I mean, I know abortion is illegal in Ireland but, until now, I'd never fully understood that I could actually be put in prison. Maybe that's the only time anyone knows anything - when it impacts them directly."

It's a perfectly reasonable plot strand to include in a book, especially considering how high-profile the current debate on abortion is, but perhaps it might have worked better had it been afforded the same light touch that the other weighty issues in the book were given.

This tiny gripe aside, The Break is as enjoyable as any classic Keyes and it feels a little more grounded in ordinary, relatable life, and a little more grown-up than her most recent books have done (even if things threaten to come undone on an ill-advised skite to Serbia).

Personally, the most enjoyable parts of Keyes's books are always her warm, conversational style and her very Irish humour. Keyes delivers a never-ending succession of one-liners which exist purely for her readers' entertainment, which is no bad thing. "She's as leaky as Julian Assange," she writes of Amy's indiscreet sister, before moving swiftly on to the next joke. Despite the many pastel-hued book covers, Keyes's humour is often pitch-black. At one point, Amy goes searching for a depressed Hugh and, fearing the worst, says: "Marlay Park seemed like the obvious choice - all those trees."

The Break is a very enjoyable read, with a strong moral heart and plenty of laughs, and it's long enough that the reader doesn't feel short-changed. A perfect fireside companion as the evenings draw in.

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