“What doesn’t kill us makes us funnier.” –Marian Keyes
Marian Keyes, it’s safe to say, is not considered a serious author. She writes what is known as “chick lit,” an amorphous genre of contemporary fiction that, like “chick flick” is used almost universally negatively. Serious women do not read Marian Keyes, obviously.
Which I guess makes me an unserious woman, because I like Marian Keyes. Her writing is witty and charming, as perfect an antidote to a bad day as a glass of wine and a bath (two things I usually have/am doing while reading Marian Keyes books). I read most books the way you might plow through a bowl of pasta if you forgot to eat lunch. But at the risk of belaboring the old “chick lit=dessert” trope, I approach her books more like a stash of chocolate; I ration it out for when I need it. Such was the case with this book – I read in bits, usually after I’d had a bad day, and it would cheer me up.
Here’s the thing about Marian Keyes, though – her books might be on the fluffier side, but she’s Irish, and therefore cannot usually resist the impulse to add a dash of tragedy to even her lightest of fare. Sometimes it’s a small side note; sometimes, as in Anybody Out There?, it’s the twist on which the whole story hinges. The latter example was one of her more controversial novels – her longtime readers felt cheated into reading a tragedy, because it wasn’t what they’d bargained for. I felt the opposite: it certainly wasn’t what I’d bargained for, but I appreciated it all the more for it’s humorously poignant take on the grieving process. Nonetheless, it garnered a lot of criticism for trying to take on a more serious subject than chick lit writers are supposed to take on, aka anything other than weight issues and shoes.
Happily, the criticism seems to have slid right off of her. The Brightest Star in the Sky is another example of Keyes’ particular brand of seriocomedy. Much like her last book, the story of a serial abuser as told by four women who knew him, this one starts out seeming like a standard single-gal comedy. Also similar to her last novel, it is told from a variety of perspectives. I’m not a fan of this kind of variegated storytelling, and unfortunately this was no exception. The characters, connected only by their address (they all live in the same apartment building) are all dealing with a host of individual issues, some more serious than others. The constant bouncing back and forth is a bit jarring especially when towards the end of the book, we are introduced to the twist (spoilers ahead, for those that care): as it turns out, one of the main characters has been affected by rape.
Full disclosure: I volunteer at a rape crisis center, which means I can’t read or listen to people talk about rape like a normal person. My over-familiarity with the subject tends to manifest in two ways: 1) a virulently negative response to an unexpected rape in a book or movie; and 2) an immediate need to critically parse the ways in which that rape was represented. In this case, I had just gotten off a particularly difficult shift at the rape crisis center, and was unwinding with a book and a glass (read: many glasses) of wine when I realized that the explanation for one of the main characters’ behavior was that she had been raped.
My first reaction was to throw the book across the room and yell loudly, “Rape is everywhere!” This understandably aroused the concern of my boyfriend, who came in to investigate that the omnipresence of rape didn’t include our bedroom at that particular moment. In my defense, it had really been a tremendously shitty week, one in which I didn’t feel like I could pick up a paper or turn on the TV without “RAPE” standing out in big block letters. Its inclusion in a novel I’d read specifically to get away from thinking about rape felt like a grievous betrayal. My boyfriend sympathized, and then suggested I put it down, rather in the way one might suggest an unbalanced inmate remove a firearm from his or her person. I refused, making what I felt was the reasonable argument that “now I have to finish it, because it’s already out there.” I did this because, like Keyes, I am Irish, and we are a people that insist on poking our fingers into wounds repeatedly just to make sure that they do in fact still hurt.
I stayed up until 2AM finishing the book, and when I finished it, a very peculiar thing happened. I laughed.
Now obviously, I’m not Daniel Tosh. I don’t find rape hilarious, as a general rule. And though there are many funny things about Marian Keyes’ book, her portrayal of the rape wasn’t one of them. Just the opposite, in fact: it was so indicative of cases we often see in the rape crisis field that it started to feel like a PSA (I was entirely unsurprised to read a special thank you to the Dublin Rape Crisis Center in the acknowledgments). Her symptoms of trauma were lifted straight from the 1987 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But though they were at times cringeworthy, they weren’t funny. No, what was funny was the poetic justice the rapist receives in the epilogue of the book. Similar to the ending of her last book, the villain gets his comeuppance. In and of itself that is unrealistic enough in our society, but in this book, the poetic justice is so impossibly over-the-top that it’s almost intentionally comedic.
The thing is, though? It made me laugh. And laughing about it made me feel better. In my line of work, most rapists don’t ever receive any kind of punishment, whether legal or otherwise. They see no negative consequences for their actions, much less a (spoiler) conveniently placed block of ice falling on and crushing them while their victim happens to be looking on. We live in a world where closure regarding one’s rapist is often impossible, but for some reason, reading this completely implausible version of closure made me feel a little bit better, a little more able to let go of some of the more disturbing aspects of my work.
There’s a lot that can and must be said about the ghetto-ization of women’s literature, and the perceived difference between commercial literature and “actual” literature, but sometimes as an author you have to forget all that and just consider whether or not your writing is making a difference to your reader. Marian Keyes has written about serial abuse and rape in a (mostly) responsible way for an audience of people who are used to seeing both portrayed in only the most irresponsible of ways. She exposed a whole swath of the female population to extremely tricky concepts like victim-blaming and post-traumatic stress disorder in a way that was probably a lot more palatable than the way my colleagues and I do, with our buzzwords and highly researched curricula. And most importantly, to me anyway, she made me feel better about a subject that usually makes me feel horrible. There’s something to be said for that. There’s a lot to be said for that.
Recommended for: recommended broadly for rape crisis workers who are too exhausted to perform a critical exegesis on the pros and cons of the portrayal of rape in media after a long day at work.
Read when: You’ve just gotten home from a crappy shift at the rape crisis center, apparently.
Listen with: Something relaxing yet upbeat, with very low stakes. So basically, your local soft rock station.