The Break by Marian Keyes
Members of the class of 1965 to 1984, known colloquially as Generation X, tend to look back with nostalgic fondness on 1990s TV, when shows such as Blossom and Beverly Hills 90210 bravely took on controversial social issues: teen pregnancy, date rape, abortion, domestic violence.
The Irish dramedic writer Marian Keyes has made a name for herself covering much the same ground, tilted at a slighter older and predominantly female slice of that long-ago TV audience. In her 13th novel, The Break, she shows what happens when a couple takes a time-out from their long marriage, at the husband’s instigation.
Amy and Hugh, in their mid-40s, have a slightly messy but – to Amy’s mind, at least – largely successful family life. When they got together she was a single mother to Neeve, now 22, the product of her early first marriage to a narcissistic footballer. Then, four months into her relationship with Hugh, she fell pregnant with Kiara, now 16. And for most of their marriage they have been the primary caregivers to 17-year-old Sofie, the daughter of Amy’s brother Joe.
Amy herself is one of five children, and the misadventures of the various siblings and their elderly, half-demented parents are a lighthearted diversion from the often sombre events of the main storyline.
In the beginning, Amy’s hurt and outrage seem wholly justified. Though Hugh has been ransacked by a series of bereavements that have left him swallowing anti-depressants and seeing a grief counsellor, his confession that he feels “buried alive” in his everyday life and needs to leave for a half-year sojourn in south-east Asia is extremely hard for her to hear – even leavened by the follow-up proclamation that he wants to be with Amy for the rest of his life, and will return.
The kicker is that for six months he will be a single man, with all the freedom that entails. Just as the reader is ready to take up arms on Amy’s behalf, Keyes widens the frame. Turns out, per a series of nicely crafted flashbacks, Amy isn’t so saintly, and has been conducting a long-term flirtation with Josh Rowan, the married features editor of a prominent newspaper. Later, when Facebook provides proof of Hugh’s complete exit from marital boundaries during the break, Amy leaps into a full-blown affair with Josh.
The text, closing in on 600 pages, is much wordier than it needs to be, but Keyes fans won’t mind the detail of the juxtaposition of Amy’s inner and public lives: her family’s history; the toll of a working life spent juggling high-needs PR clients and scoop-obsessed journalists in Dublin and London; her boundless insecurities and endless ruminations.
At its core, The Break is the story of a woman fighting for her identity and the conviction that she is right-way-up in her own life. As Amy complains to her sister, “There’s never enough money. There’s never enough time . . . I just want something for me. I want one part of my life that no one else can have.”
In what is perhaps a hangover from Amy’s affect, the tone of the novel is at times scattered and anxious, and this intensifies with a shoehorned subplot involving an unwanted pregnancy and Ireland’s punitive abortion laws. But in its best moments, The Break is as poignant and serious as any of the literary fiction written by Keyes’s compatriots Colm Tóibin and Maggie O’Farrell, both of whom have their own versions of Amy.
Previously reviewed on Coast FM.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones