Well Read: Again, Rachel

Helen Brown talks to Marian Keyes about her latest book,
Again Rachel

“Shoes and bottles of Prosecco, I know…” shrugs Marian Keyes. We’re talking about the “reductive, dismissive” covers slapped onto so many women’s novels in the 1990s. Keyes is riding high on the giddy wave of critical acclaim she’s received for her seventeenth novel, Again, Rachel. But things were different when she published her first book Watermelon in 1995. “As a serious reader, proud of what I had written” she was taken aback to find herself filed in the new genre of “chick lit” along with novelists such as Helen Fielding, whose era-defining Bridget Jones’ Diary was published in 1996.

Speaking to me via video link from her home in Dún Laoghaire, Keyes is a delightfully animated conversationalist. She reminds me of a hummingbird, with her prettily painted fingers aflutter and expressions a-whirr as she engages precisely with every point. She cocks her head to one side and rolls her eyes at the sniffy response to her early work – often by people who hadn’t bothered to read it. “It was just weird to be dismissed as ‘pulp’ and ‘froth’,” she says.

Beneath those pastel covers, Keyes believes that chick lit authors were at the vanguard of a social revolution. “In its original form,” she says, “chick lit told truth to the lie of post-feminism. I’m 58 years old. I came of age in a post-feminist world.

It was a world in which you didn’t want to be ‘one of those awful feminists’” – she pulls a comic ‘dour feminist’ face – “or you’d never get a boyfriend. We were told you could drink like a man and have sex like a man. It was such bullshit! We still didn’t have women in power, women were paid so much less, the glass ceiling was real. You were made to feel like a bad sport if you noticed the gender pay gap and didn’t want have sex with everyone.”

Born into a large, lively family in Limerick in 1963, Keyes studied law at University College Dublin then took on office work in London. But she struggled with the “ladette” culture of big cities. “I had all these wants and needs that I didn’t feel I was allowed to speak about,” she explains. “I wanted a loving boyfriend, a husband even,” she pantomimes shock-horror. “I felt very ashamed of that. But we were meant to have Evolved Past This.”

Looking back, Keyes says she “did all the things expected of me to fall in with the mores of the time but, like so many women, I didn’t feel alright and my generation’s chick lit exposed all of that. It laid the foundations for women speaking openly about subjects like rape. It allowed women to know that rape wasn’t something that was only done to us by strangers down dark alleys. It allowed women to express personal ambition and write about money.”

It offered a private space in which to think about what they really wanted? “Yes!” And it relieved the tension with laughter? “Yes, yes, yes! One of the horrible tropes about women is that we’re not funny. Books were a place where women started talking about sex, having a laugh about sex, having a laugh about a man’s appendage. Yes, some men found that threatening. But it helped a lot of women who’d been raised with fear and shame.”

I suggest that we can trace the recent rise of brilliant, edgy female comedians (Sara Pascoe, Fern Brady, Sarah Millican etc) back to 1990s chick lit. The next generation comics grew up on those books and their filmed/ televised versions.

They learned it was OK to ask for what they wanted and question what was wrong with a society that left women feeling so marginalised. Keyes agrees that, with the male experience as “the default world view, the female experience was seen as a little breakaway oddball cult”. Gender inequality fed into the novelist’s unease in the world.

“Being me always felt like wearing a really tight pair of shoes,” she says. “I was so uncomfortable in my own skin, I hated it. But when I drank the shoes loosened. I felt the way I imagined other people felt. I was self-medicating the pain of feeling like an outsider.”

Her drinking escalated through her twenties. After a suicide attempt, her father checked her into rehab. She tells me she’s been sober for 28 years. Her “eye-opening, heart-opening” experience in rehab formed the basis for her third novel, Rachel’s Holiday (1998), about a young Irish woman who moves to New York in a quest for the ultimate big city lifestyle, but ends up addicted to drugs. Like Keyes, she’s admitted to rehab, which she suspects will be a spa-type experience. But it turns out to be a hard lesson in reality that slowly strips its loveably acid-tongued narrator of her denial.

Keyes says she once shared her character’s refusal to face facts. “By the end of my drinking life I was very lonely, very isolated,” she says. “I still had a job and a flat. But I was slowly letting everything go. People had started telling me that I was an alcoholic. But I thought it was temporary. I thought my drinking was really bad because things were really bad right then. I thought it was a response to unpleasant things. I thought there was something wrong in my wiring and I was depressed but that, when things improved, I wouldn’t drink that way any more”

She expected rehab to make it possible for her to “drink normally”. She laughs at the naivety that made her imagine Dublin’s Rutland Centre would “have lots of brainy men who would analyse me. I thought they would tell me that my problem was that I was too clever. And they’d untangle me.”

Instead, Keyes wasn’t far into her six-week rehab before she realised that “the people I was in there with were the ones who could help me the most. And I could help them. I mean, not everybody got on. Emotions were so out of control. We were all crying and shouting and feeling really intensely.

There were clashes. But there was also a huge amount of love and kindness. We all knew the shame and shock that the other people were going through.” She notes that her fellow addicts were “people I wouldn’t have crossed paths with at any other time. There were working class men, older women from the countryside. People of all ages and classes. I was told that addiction doesn’t care if you have a good degree, it doesn’t care if you’re black or white, rich or poor, male or female. It gets who it gets.”

After Keyes left rehab and launched her writing career she still had to “grieve the person I had been and the life I was going to live. I’d always hoped that I would be ‘normal’. I wanted to be uncomplicated and unremarkable and bad at misery. I’m so good at misery. Well, I was.”

Again, Rachel picks up Rachel Walsh’s story two decades later. The former addict is now an addiction counsellor at the rehab centre that restored her to sobriety. She seems so sorted – with her peppy new boyfriend and wholesome addiction to gardening – that readers may wonder how Keyes will keep the plot going. But the emotional shocks come thick and fast.

Through it all, Keyes uses the Walsh sisters as a means of picking apart social trends. They wittily debate fashions in clothes and food, sex and parenting. “I am interested, entertained and appalled by middle class people,” says Keyes. Like a 21st-century Austen she notes that: “I’m always curious about how people spend their money – the daft restaurants and fashions. I like to reflect the world we’re in and I do like to point out the ridiculous parts.”

But she’s also intensely aware that, when not writing, she is “just as suggestible to all the adverts. I see my own complicity in middle class capitalism. But when I’m working I’m able to stand back, mildly scornful, saying: ‘Jesus! Look at them there with their Teslas!’”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

Arts & Culture

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