Merciful Hour

My Twitter lovelies (well, the ones that aren’t sex bots or trying to get me to invest in recession-proof business schemes, anyway) may have noticed that I’ve gone a bit loopy lately. Less of the hilariously astute social commentary and witty cynicism (work with me here please), and more of the OH MY GOD OH MY GOD LOOK WHO REPLIED TO MY TWEET fangirling over a certain Dublin-based author. (By the way, yes, we did indeed have a little back and forth on the Twitters. Proof here.) Anyway, whether you care or not, chances are that if you know me, you will have heard that “Queen of Chick Lit” Marian Keyes has a new book out – The Mystery of Mercy Close. Michael Joseph (Penguin), 508 pages, £18.99 (but lovely Waterstones, bless them, are currently doing a £10 off deal. Just as an FYI. Now go. Buy it. Hurry, because if you don’t live in London, your nearest bookshop will close soon. I’m afraid you can’t borrow mine because the waiting list is very, oh very long. But I digress.

Why should you read this book? Well, duh, because it’s good. Because it’s so good. Becauses it’s one of those books that you just want to carry around with you all day (and that’s where it gets tricky, I had to go to work carrying my cotton Notting Hill Shopping Bag and looking ten times the hippie I usually do, because it wouldn’t fit in my handbag), and when you finish the last sentence you feel as if you’ve just lost a good friend. Because it contains a terrificly written, incredibly moving romantic scene that you might just miss because it’s so elegantly low key (hint: picnic). Because once again, Keyes manages to break the chains of being classified as a writer of “women’s fiction” (said with derisive snarl, of course) and address uncomfortable issues such as mental health with her trademark lighthearted wit, but never in a condescending or judgmental way. But then again that’s just your usual, run-of-the-mill Marian magic, and we didn’t expect anything less from her, whose every novel has been hailed as “her best yet”.

I have read and re-read all of her novels several times, and of all her characters I have always loved the Walsh sisters the most. I see bits of myself in Claire, Margaret, Rachel and Anna, and I have a sister who is exactly like Helen (as described by her sisters. Wouldn’t put it past her to end up in the funny house either). I was a bit apprehensive as to how Marian would dissolve the dilemma of having to write about a character as scary and unpredictable as Helen, because much as I loved Anybody Out There (and it might just be my favourite of the stack), I always felt she’d overdone it a bit with giving Anna a complete character transplant. But much to my relief, with the fifth one she didn’t – Helen Walsh is every bit as stroppy, mouthy, direct, unpredictable and self-reliant as she ever was. Her dark secret is not very secret at all – it’s right out there in the open, from the very first page. The mystery seems to be what happened to trigger it, but when we do find out, it’s suddenly no longer important. “People get sick and sometimes they get better and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes you wonder whether outside interference makes any difference at all; whether an illness is like a storm; whether it simply has to run it’s course and, at the end, either you will be alive or you will be dead.”

And now you may tune out, because what follows might just be my English degree getting the better of me – but the way I read it, the second heroine of the story in Mercy Close is Ireland. While Helen tries to tackle her demons, Éire is fighting her battle against the crippling recession. The chapter about Helen’s flat being repossessed was gut-wrenchingly sad, but the casual mentions of debilitating unemployment, poverty, loss and hopelessness are worse. I remember walking through Dublin last February, and the posters asking young people to APPLY FOR VISA HERE nearly broke my heart. I’ve never suffered from depression in the clinical sense, but I imagine it would be tough even for the most resilient of optimists to retain their good spirits in a climate like that. I am inclined to believe that Helen Walsh is indeed “the perfect heroine for our times”, as one of the cover blurbs proudly claims, because she is trying to hold on as everything around her is disintegrating.

More than two years ago, Marian published this letter to her fans, explaining that a “major depressive episode” had left her unable to cope with everyday life, let alone write. She recently said she has come to realise that a large part of her former self is gone, and now it is about accepting the “new” Marian, and in a way, you can tell with Mystery Close. Marian’s trademark zeitgeisty observational humour is as astute as it ever was, but the rip-roaring hilarities are no more. There are no more cheerily indulgent drunken girly nights about town, and the romance plot takes a determined backseat. Chick lit, it isn’t.

If you love Marian, go buy this book. If you don’t love her yet, go buy this book and become enlightened. There is no third option.

UPDATE: As of this morning, I have received this on the Twitters: