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Intuition is the star of Keyes' show

The Brightest Star in the Sky

Marian Keyes

Penguin, €9.99

MARIAN Keyes' latest novel, The Brightest Star in the Sky, begins with two short poems. One, by Irish poet Christina Rehill, recounts a story of rape; the other, a quotation from Leonard Cohen's song Anthem, tells how secrets are revealed. Together they make an ominous start for the best-selling author's 10th novel. In typical Keyes style, dark events are at the centre of this light-hearted book. She has produced another captivating page-turner that has likeable characters, and a dash of tragedy for good measure.

The Brightest Star in the Sky explores the lives of four sets of people who lodge at 66 Star Street, Dublin 8. Most of them are unsettled, or else stuck in some way. Katie, 40, is going out with the rich but emotionless Conall. Lydia, in her mid-20s, is a taxi-driver dating a Nigerian taxi-man called Gilbert. Matt and Maeve are a young couple who seem to have the perfect relationship -- except that something is wrong. Jemima alone is free of love-life troubles. An old Protestant widow, she lives at number 66 with her dog Grudge.

Modern Dublin plays an important background role in the novel: Keyes captures a multicultural city in the midst of monetary crises. In addition to romance, her characters worry about their finances and their jobs. Katie first meets Conall when he arrives to downsize (and fire people) at the record company where she works. Matt thinks about moving house as a way to make Maeve happy, but when he looks into it, the estate agent tells him he won't be able to because the value of their current apartment has dropped "substantially". Rape and depression have a part in the story too, along with (not very effective) psychotherapy. Keyes, who lives in Dun Laoghaire, is keeping close tabs on Dublin and all its current problems.

She tells the tale with her usual vivacious charm and skill. The book has a cosy, informal feel, as if she is chatting to you rather than writing. She has a great sense of humour and a wonderfully sharp eye for the neuroses and oddities that are part of the Irish make-up. Lydia's boyfriend, Gilbert, makes her unexciting meals like pizza, not because he can't cook, but out of respect for her "cautious Irish palate". Lydia hates talking to people in her taxi and when she encounters garrulous passengers, she asks them, "Have you accepted Christ Jesus into your life as your lord and saviour?" That shuts them up.

One difficulty with having such a large family of characters, entertaining though each may be, is that it sometimes feels as if there are just too many of them. Keyes has a deft light touch, bringing you to a crisis point in one storyline, then dropping it and turning to another -- but there would be more depth to the book if she developed the individual plots further. Katie, for instance, is an appealing woman who lacks self-esteem because her mother criticises her all the time. Keyes sketches in the facts of Katie's upbringing, but it would be interesting to learn more about Katie's history, and what went wrong.

It's not just the renters at 66 Star Street who ask for our attention in this novel. Fionn is a handsome gardener from a town called Pokey in Monaghan, blond and gorgeous with "big spade-like hands". A TV executive who visits Pokey notices him and invites him to Dublin to star in a gardening show called "Your Own Private Eden". He stays with Jemima. Fionn was orphaned at a young age, and Jemima, it turns out, adopted him after his mother died. He has just reached (and survived) the age his mother was when she passed away, and in the otherworldly realm of the novel this gives him a special sort of love licence. He falls in love with Maeve, then with a woman called Rosie, then with Katie, with whom he has an affair. The romantic turnabouts are a bit too swift to be credible.

There's also the matter of the star in the title, a creature that flits into 66 Star Street and spies on the people who live there. We meet the star in the book's opening lines:

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"June the first, a bright summer's evening, a Monday. I've been flying over the streets and houses of Dublin and now, finally, I'm here. I enter through the roof. Via a skylight I slide into a living room and right away I know it's a woman who lives here. There's a femininity to the furnishings -- pastel-coloured throws on the sofa, that sort of thing. Two plants. Both alive. A television of modest size."

It's a bold move to have a supernatural being tell the story. Will Keyes pull this off, I wondered at first? She succeeds through a combination of whimsy and daring. The star embodies the sensitivity that the characters lack. The more perceptive of them, like Maeve and Jemima and the dog Grudge, feel the star's presence. Grudge is, in Jemima's mind, "more intuitive than most humans. Which wouldn't be difficult, seeing as the vast majority were walking about with their heads stuck up their own fundaments."

In a way the book is about intuition: the need for people sometimes to heed their most illogical feelings about each other and themselves.

The ending is happy, of course. In The Brightest Star in the Sky Keyes has done what she achieved so well in her earlier novels -- created an intriguing and pulsating tale that engages with the realities of Irish life. What's best about the book is not the nicely resolved conclusion or the characters' overcoming of their "issues" but Keyes' ability to probe the complexities that lurk behind outward appearances.


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