Saturday 21 September 2019

Profound and timeless family saga

Fiction: Ask Again, Yes, Mary Beth Keane,

Penguin/Michael Joseph,


Ask Again, Yes
Ask Again, Yes

Estelle Birdy

Mary Beth Keane's compelling third novel opens in 1973 and explores the intertwined lives of two families over the following four decades.

Galway native, Francis Gleeson and New Yorker, Brian Stanhope are NYPD rookies in the Bronx. They and their families end up living next door to each other in Gillam, a small town outside New York City. Francis's wife, Lena, is the capable, loving mother of three girls.

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Meanwhile, Anne, Brian's Irish-born wife, having suffered the stillbirth of their first child, proves to be a strange and challenging neighbour.

The two families have little contact, until Kate, the youngest of the Gleeson girls, and Peter, the Stanhope's only child, become friends in early childhood, forming a strong bond.

A bond which strengthens until tragedy strikes when they are in eighth grade.

This is a captivating, authentic and intricately-woven story - a testament to Keane's meticulous research and emotional intelligence. From the habits and procedures of the NYPD to the symptoms of psychiatric illness, intimate details make this a beautifully textured book.

While the novel deals with weighty themes - the effects of violence, mental illness, grief and trauma - the author explores these issues with a delicate touch.

Elegantly paced, there is no melodrama here. And while the book is deeply empathetic, Keane's clean prose ensures that this gripping tale never strays into mawkishness.

The main characters are distinctly rendered and fully developed as the story unfolds. Point of view alternates between characters, fully engaging the reader with the feelings, motivations and desires of these flawed, but loving, people.

Throughout much of the early passages of the book, we see this world through the children's eyes. "Why is your mother like that?" Kate asks; although neither child can define what is different about Anne Stanhope.

Through Peter, we are presented with a realistic child's view of the unravelling and eventual complete dissolution of his mother's sanity, and we have a strong sense of the young boy's fear, incomprehension and desire to fix things, "He tried to read what was coming in the set of her shoulders."

There is a poignancy to the helplessness of the child, of course, but Keane juxtaposes this with insights into the internal workings of Anne Stanhope's mind, both during and after the traumatic events.

Anne wonders, for instance, "if she was simply very, very mean".

Eventually, the two families must separate entirely, making it impossible for Kate and Peter to be together. As Peter's stoic uncle, George, says of Kate, "There's just one girl in the world, who seems like a bad idea and it's this one." The question then becomes, can love really conquer all? This, indeed, is the crux of the whole story.

Immensely affecting, this book poses big questions. Can we ever escape our history? Are we prisoners of our bloodlines? Ultimately, this book is an examination of love - familial and romantic.

There is nothing grandiose about this novel. It is an epic story, quietly told. And it is all the better for that.

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