Talking Love and Longing with Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes’s “The Break”. Image sourced from Marian Keyes’s page. 

Marian Keyes is a bestselling Irish novelist — the prolific author of sixteen books of fiction, well regarded for titles like Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, and Last Chance Saloon. In her latest novel, The Break, Keyes continues to build on past themes, exploring relationships from female perspectives, and tackling difficult topics with a characteristic sense of humour and wit.

Amy’s husband Hugh has decided he needs some time off from their marriage — no, it’s not a divorce, but a break. Hugh will travel Southeast Asia while Amy remains at home with the kids, working her PR job and sorting through understandably muddled emotions. Amy has her own desires, feelings that tempt her to stray from her commitment to Hugh. Keyes works through a series of questions. Is Hugh a bad guy? Is Amy guilty of emotional unfaithfulness? Is their relationship built to last? She’s not quick to jump to conclusions. Instead her characters learn to accept messiness and to simply find comfort in companionship.

“I used to think the line dividing sane people from insane people was entirely black or white – sane or insane – with no grey area.,” thinks Amy, “but suddenly I see now that the grey area is enormous. It spreads far and wide and into every part of life.”

Last month, I had the opportunity to ask Marian some questions about the book. Take a look at our conversation for insights into characters and thoughts on what makes or breaks a satisfying relationship.

Rachel Gerry: Your style of writing is truly funny; Amy is full of one-liners and witty observations. What is the value of presenting serious content in a lighthearted manner?

Marian Keyes: Hello and thank you! I always write about issues that impact the lives of women and they’re often serious things. Using humour is a trick to keep the reader reading despite the subject matter being uncomfortable or challenging. I think it’s probably a way to also keep me writing. However, I’m very careful to never use humour to undermine a serious subject.

R: Social media plays a significant role in this novel. Facebook helps Amy to keep an eye on Hugh when he is away and to monitor peoples’ reactions when he returns. Do you believe that platforms like Facebook have a negative impact on modern day relationships?

MK: I’m not really on Facebook for the very reason that I find it unsettling and sometimes actually upsetting. Seeing other people out ‘Living their best life’ and being on amazing holidays etc. makes me feel like my own existence is pretty pathetic. I guess I see how good it can be in staying in touch with loved ones who live far away but by presenting an idealized picture of other lives, Facebook can erode the value we put on our own less-than-perfect relationships.

R: Amy’s affair with journalist, Josh Rowan, is strictly emotional before it becomes physical. Is there an important difference between these forms of infidelity?

MK: I don’t think I’d be too happy if my husband was emotionally infatuated with another women. But I think I’d be far more distraught if it was physical. Up to a point I think flirtations are okay, I mean we’re all human. But in Amy’s case, it was a bit more than that, long before it got physical.

R: At times, the children seem to have it more together than the parents. “We’ve been chill about this,” reminds Amy’s daughter, Kiara. Where do they derive their strength and maturity?

MK: Kiara was very much inspired by my beloved niece Ema, who is amazing. She’s an old soul even though she’s only 17. Also, I think modern kids have been given an education in emotional intelligence that I never got. They have the language to express how they feel, they have labels to hang their emotions on. Schools are so pro-active in trying to prevent mental health issues that it’s made a difference to how teens view the world. As a caveat though, I should stress that while they can be wise about other people, they still find their own feelings confusing and sometimes overwhelming.

R: Many chapters begin with the announcement of the weekday, often a Monday. What does this say about Amy’s routine? Her feelings towards it?

MK: It’s predictable, it’s tough and there aren’t that many opportunities for fun. Like, so many people, poor Amy has a lot on her plate.

R: “I feel like I need to hurt you,” says Amy when Hugh returns. Is it important to feel even in a relationship?

MK: I’m sorry I’m not sure I understand the question. But I totally understand Amy wanting to hurt Hugh because he’s hurt her so much. I think it’s a natural response.

R: Amy realizes that no relationship is black and white. “Life is all about the grey”. When you began to write this book, were you aware of its ending? Or were you unsure of how to navigate through “the grey”?

MK: I had NO idea how it was going to end. It was only through the writing of this novel that I realised just how much of life is ‘grey’. Every relationship is nuanced and now I feel that no-one has any right to comment on another person’s relationship: the people who are living it are the only ones who truly understand its unique complexity. So yes, I was very uncertain about navigating the nuances. All I knew was that there were no goodies and no baddies, just flawed humans trying to do their best.

R: What do you believe is most important quality in a long-term relationship?

MK: Tricky one. I was going to say Kindness because it’s what I look for in everyone. But I guess for a longterm relationship to survive, it means the 2 people have to learn to forgive each other for their fallibility. Holding each other to impossibly high standards is going to fail. From time to time, even when we love someone, we’re all going to make mistakes, get things wrong, be thoughtless, selfish, foolish. To recognise that your partner is just a flawed human being, just like you, instead of a perfect saviour, can be disappointing but it also provides a realistic view of things from which to work.

R: (With reference to the above.) Do you think that your characters ever find it?

MK: Absolutely!

Thank you very much, these were great questions

Marian Keyes’s “The Break” was published earlier this year by Penguin and is now available online and in store. Find out more about the author here.

Books on This Year’s Holiday Wish List

There are no shortage of good books out there. If you are wondering what to gift your book-loving kin but don’t know where to begin, here are some titles at the top of my to-read list this holiday season.

Canadian: The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore is an all time favourite when it comes to short fiction. She is a distinctly Canadian writer, often alluding to her native Newfoundland or to neighbourhoods in downtown Toronto. Her writing is inimitable — matter of fact and freely imagistic. She is interested in human relationships and devises rich emotional worlds that linger invisibly over commonplace settings and events. I look forward to reading her very best in this collection.

Award Winning: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve yet to read Kazuo Ishiguro, but Never Let Me Go seems as good a place as any to begin. Set in dystopian England, it follows the lives of human clones, manufactured for the purpose of donating vital organs to prolong the lives of ordinary citizens. It was short listed for the 2005 Booker prize and included in TIME’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Ishiguro was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

Oddball: Notable American Women by Ben Marcus

I sincerely hope that this strange and wonderful-seeming book finds its way onto my shelf. Ben Marcus experiments with language as he tells the tale of the fictional Marcus family. In the beginning, a young Ben recounts his mother’s rituals as she works to make the world perfectly still; she “chooses not to move, refuses to speak” to eliminate the “wind violence” of words. What’s next, I don’t know, but I’m sure that it’s equally bizarre.

Best Seller: Swing Time by Zadie Smith                                                                                                

Swing Time sits comfortably in the window of nearly every other bookshop and in the hands of café dwellers and subway riders alike. Once, I even saw somebody walking down the street with it, unfazed by the likelihood of tripping or bumping into a stranger or wandering into a burning building. This must be a good book.  It’s a bildungsroman, following two girls who meet in a community dance class. While the friendship between them ends in their early twenties, it is never forgotten. According to the back cover, it’s “a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them.”

Non Fiction: Essays Against Everything by Mark Grief

Mark Greif refers to Essays Against Everything as a critique of the things he does. He looks culture in the face and questions it head to toe; topics range from the overvaluation of exercise, to the hipster, to the concept of Experience. In the preface Greif says, “To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop”.

Top Five Young Adult Novels This Year

In the literary world, young adult novels are typically looked down on as being less high quality than fiction produced for adults, and not worthy of the same critical inspection and praise. I totally disagree. Not only is that assessment an insult to the authors of these books, it’s an insult to the readers. In any case, 2017 has been an excellent year for young adult novels. Here are my picks of the top five young adult novels released this year.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green is widely known for his previous young adult novels along with his YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, co-hosted with his brother Hank Green, and dozens of other online projects. Unlike his previous works, however, this one feels more authentic and gripping, as Green reveals, via his narrator Aza Holmes, the terrifying prison of thoughts created by OCD and anxiety (which Green himself suffers from), and the realities of living with a mental illness.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

It’s often assumed that teen literature can’t really discuss intense and/or controversial topics, or talk about them well. It’s also often assumed that debuting authors aren’t doing the best work out there. Angie Thomas proves both of those assumptions totally false in her stunning debut work. The novel revolves around its narrator, Starr, who navigates the worlds of her poor black neighborhood and her wealthy white prep school, and the fallout when her friend Khalil, unarmed, is shot by the police. Thomas dives right in to the subjects of police brutality, race, and class with nuance, thoughtfulness, and grace.

I Hate Everyone But You by Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn

If you’re a fan of the hilarious YouTube comedy channel Just Between Us, then you’ll love this fun and charismatic novel from its two creators, Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn. The story is told through a series of emails, text messages, and other communications between its two main characters, best friends Ava and Gen, as they begin their first year of college. Just as they do in their YouTube show, Raskin and Dunn tackle everything from coming out to mental health with boldness and humor in this awesome debut.

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

When the protagonist of this story, Griffin, finds out his ex-boyfriend, Theo, has died, it sets off a terrifying spiral of downward thoughts, secrets, and obsessions. Author Adam Silvera adds this emotionally devastating tale to his other, critically acclaimed works including the New York Times bestseller More Happy Than Not. In this book, Silvera explores loss, grief, mental anguish, and how we learn to let go.

A List of Cages by Robin Roe

Another stunning debut novel, this one from Robin Roe, A List of Cages tells the story of high school senior Adam Blake, who finds himself reunited with his former foster brother, Julian. However, Julian is keeping a few secrets. As Adam struggles with ADHD and tries to navigate Julian’s issues, his desire to help Julian pushes up against the reality of both their situations. Roe gives us an amazing debut novel, and leaves us eager for her next work.

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We Become Visible: A Review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s ‘Go, Went, Gone’

A group of asylum seekers stand in protest in Alexanderplatz. They refuse to eat. They refuse to speak. They hold a sign that reads:We become visible. So begins Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone.

In her latest novel, Erpenbeck sheds light on Europe’s refugee crisis and the harsh realities faced by asylum seekers. The narrative follows Richard, a retired professor of Classics. In the beginning, Richard fails to notice the protesters, despite the fact that he had passed through Alexanderplatz many times during their demonstration. Instead, he finds out about the protest on the evening news. Disturbed by his lack of awareness, Richard sets out to become involved in the lives of the refugees. He seeks them out, asks them questions and listens to their stories; out of their exchange grows immense compassion and will to action.

As a recent retiree, Richard is confined to the home; he takes boxes from the office and “incorporate[s] their contents into his private realm”. Not only is Richard restricted in space, but he is captive to habit. Erpenbeck lists the minutiae of Richard’s routine. Richard is reading the newspaper, drinking tea, buying groceries, or folding sheets. He goes through the motions.

But it doesn’t take much for Richard, a well-to-do European, to break free from daily patterns and constraints. Unlike the refugees who truly have nowhere to go, no work, no country to return to, Richard’s confinement is not prohibitive. As he engages with the protesters, he finds new work supporting their cause. When he invites migrants to stay in his home, his solitude unravels, private life is made public and ritual meals are transformed into social gatherings. For Richard, isolation is more of a habit than a necessary state of being.

If only Germany could do the same. Germany is certainly in the habit of isolation, but it need not remain that way. Germany, more than any other nation, should understand that habits may be broken, social constructs rearranged. For Richard and his East German friends Sylvia and Detlef, “the sense that all existing order is reversible has always seemed perfectly natural,” for they have known the collapse of German Socialism and the marriage of East and West. They realize that enemies can become neighbours overnight.

But Germany is loath to open its boarders to refugees. Erpenbeck condemns the German public for their ignorance and indifference. As Richard frets over African refugees who drowned on treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean, he finds others to be cruel and callous. On the internet, DontCare writes: “The only ones I really feel sorry for are the coastguard workers!” In an effort to highlight the absurdity of the policies that make life impossible for refugees, Erpenbeck is explicit. She cites the Dublin II regulation, and the 70,000 vacant assistant positions that Germany is unwilling to give to refugees; she even takes time to outline the official punishment for foreigners who have committed theft.

These political details don’t grow organically out of plot, but are deliberately arranged throughout the text. At times the narrative feels bogged down by facts. Still, this book would not be nearly as effective without them. Erpenbeck includes the specifics because they count. It is only in taking time to learn the details that we can understand, with acuity, the migrant’s dilemma and the impact of our apathy.

Erpenbeck also explores prospects for communication. She understands that you cannot will away a lifetime of cultural embeddedness by the snap of your fingers. Even Richard finds it difficult to keep all the Africans’ names straight, and applies nicknames like Tristan and Apollo, drawing on his European, academic background; Rashid, a refugee from Niger who Richard befriends, is quite like the thunderbolt-hurler. On the flip side, she understands that nobody enters into a new culture instantly or seamlessly. The African migrants are taking language classes and their German is fairly rudimentary. Their conversations with Richard aren’t particularly nuanced. Of course there remain shades of meaning that Richard will never grasp, himself lacking an African background.

When we struggle to communicate, it can be difficult to cultivate a sense of compassion. The African refugees seem so foreign to the Berliners. But Erpenbeck believes in a common ground. Her prose is simple, steady, and unaffected. As she does away with stylistic flourish, she achieves total clarity and opens a space for connection. Hers is a language that everyone may share.

The attempt to communicate is more critical now than ever. Germany’s September 2017 election marked increasing polarization within the country over issues regarding refugees. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party, opposed to Angela Merkel’s open door policy towards migrants, took over 13% of the national vote. The AfD hopes to alter the German constitution to abolish asylum seekers’ right to individual hearings. They want to immediately deport all those with rejected applications regardless of the safety of their home nations. Not to mention, many members of the party have been accused of espousing neo-Nazi beliefs.

Erpenbeck speaks against the attitudes of the alt-right. She argues for a world in which borders do not have the final say on who is able to live and prosper. Richard wonders about the divide between human beings. Is there “one true critical border”? Is it “between languages?” “Those who call dinner fufu and those who call it stew?” “Is it between one day and the next?” We find that there are no real borders but only multiple habits and imaginary lines.

Erpenbeck uses fiction to approach the refugee crisis in a way that other mediums never could. Images of people-packed boats and crowded refugee camps flicker past us on television screens, but we have grown indifferent towards these endless reels. Erpenbeck offers another kind of witness; she offers a focused, meditative, and entirely human encounter with the crisis and its victims. As Richard watches the news he wonders, “what stories lay behind all the random images”.  Go, Went, Gone, provides us with these stories. They become visible.

 

Novel Ideas: Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

When I first started The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s sixth novel, I felt this sense of anticipation that continued through the whole book, as though every part of the story was only there to serve as an explanation or background for the real, important part.

I guess that makes sense in a way. The bulk of the story takes place while the main characters (including Julia, the narrator) are in grades 7-9. Is there any other time in life that just feels like a transition? Kids already too old to be kids, not quite old enough to feel like full-fledged adolescents. It’s a painful transition, one that Messud tackles gracefully. Julia and her best friend Cassie begin to grow apart only at the outset of puberty, as they develop into their own personalities and mature at different rates, toward different courses of action.

One Halloween, when both girls are in the seventh grade, crystalizes their differences. While Julia assumes the two will go trick-or-treating, Cassie informs her she’s been invited to spend the night watching horror movies at another girl’s house, which turns out to be “a boy-girl party, complete with Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle”, where Cassie also begins a relationship with a boy Julia has a crush on. Julia spends the night handing out candy and seeing her own classmates trick-or-treat at her door. It’s such a stark difference, and Messud takes care to show us Julia’s dual perspectives, answering the door with an air of not caring, while of course caring deeply on the inside.

Cover of Claire Messud’s ‘The Burning Girl’

Most authors tend not to see any emotional complexity in pre-teen girls or young teenage girls. I was worried at first that Messud would fall into the common trap with young girls whose friendship falls apart. One girl becomes the cool, popular, already grown-up while the other stays innocent and kind. And we, the ready, are always meant to sympathize more with the latter, to see her as the sweet Madonna to the former Whore. The latter always wants to stay friends, and the evil ex-best friend can’t wait to pull away.

But things are rarely so simple, and Messud doesn’t want us to think they are either. Julia is initially hurt by Cassie pulling away, but never really makes the effort to really come back together. Instead, she tries to forge her own identity, getting into her own life and new friends, and watching from afar as Cassie does the same. Julia half-heartedly tries to defend Cassie every now and then from various accusations from her friends (Cassie’s a slut, Cassie parties too much), while still privately harboring the same thoughts.

And rather than leave us to wonder about Cassie, Messud instead takes the time to dive into Cassie’s home life, and its many stark differences from Julia’s. Julia is solidly upper-middle class. College is an expectation, not a fantasy. She has a supportive relationship with her parents. She tells her mother everything. Julia has no need to rebel, as she has nothing so terrible to rebel against.

Author Claire Messud

On the other hand, Cassie has a strict, religious mother, whose strictness becomes even more pronounced when she begins a relationship with a man called Anders Shute. Messud never levels any explicit accusations at Shute, but he remains the most shadowy character in the book. By Cassie’s word he never does anything specific. But he seems all too interested in how short Cassie’s skirts are, how late she it out, if she is in a relationship with a boy.

Anders, like a few of the adult men in the book, straddle the line just so, between creepy and concerning. In one scene, Cassie is picked up while walking down a highway late at night by a concerned neighbor. While we never know Cassie’s thoughts at the time, Julia wonders how Cassie must have felt. She had no reason to fear him, but every reason to fear him. Both Julia and Cassie, despite their differences, feel the keen awareness of their own vulnerability, of being a young girl out in the world.

If the Burning Girl, for all the brilliance of Messud’s writing, has any faults, it’s that she occasionally writes heavy-handedly about the dangers lurking for young girls, which feels more like exposition from an adult pretending to write as an adolescent than the actual thoughts of the said adolescent. And yet, perhaps we can overlook this. If Messud discussing how terrifying the world is for young girls is meant to feel like some new revelation, it’s because it is for Julia.

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