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The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

Helen Walsh is in a pickle. The 30-something private investigator has defaulted on her mortgage and moving back in with her parents, but these are the least sinister of her problems: in a foreshadowing of blacker events in Marian Keyes’ atypically grim The Mystery of Mercy Close, Helen is having trouble breathing and sees vultures at her local petrol station. Cause for concern about Helen’s mental health is justified, there being no vultures in Ireland.

Her relationship with her boyfriend Artie is passionate, if shaken by the demands of his three children, one of whom loathes and plots against her, and the omnipresence of his irritatingly friendly ex-wife, Vonnie.

The mystery of the title refers to a case Helen picks up from an ex-boyfriend, the manager of a reuniting boy band, Laddz, that was big in Ireland in the mid-90s (though the foursome, it is straight-facedly noted, were “never in the same league” as Boyzone or Westlife). The break-up was bad, but the job could be lucrative. With no other employment options, Helen sets out to track down the missing fourth member, Wayne Diffney, in time for three upcoming reunion gigs. Wayne’s home, one of 12 houses on a quiet cul-de-sac called Mercy Close, is the obvious place to start. Though the property yields few early clues, as Helen’s illness worsens it becomes an unexpected refuge.

Keyes has said she starts her books with characters, working on them until she really knows them. In the latest installment in her Walsh family series, it’s unsurprising that the most dominant character – the story’s villainous heart – is mental illness.

Keyes wrote her 14th work of fiction in the midst of a vicious depression that had her (like Helen) admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Though Keyes, a recovering alcoholic, believes in writing what she knows and is fond of bringing comic relief to serious topics, the fidelity of much of The Mystery of Mercy Close to agonizing events in her own life strips much of the usual levity from her writing and makes for some gruelling reading. The tone, sincere and never mawkish, invites empathy, and the matter-of-fact account of how a therapist persuades Helen to dispose of her just-purchased ‘suicide kit’ (which happened to Keyes) engenders understanding.

So too does her description of the typical reactions of friends and family to the severely depressed: these range from the ‘Let’s Laugh It Off’ merchants to the ‘Depression Deniers’ (most likely to say, “What have you got to be depressed about?”’ and the ‘It’s All About Me’ bunch (“Have you any idea how many people love you?”). Then there are those who run away altogether, and the ‘woo woos’, who come bearing recommendations for alternative remedies (angel channelling, reiki, nothing but blue food).

The groups tend to cross-pollinate, Helen reflects:

“Sometimes the Let’s Laugh It Off merchants teamed up with the Tough Love people to tell me that recovering from depression is simply ‘mind over matter’. You just decide you’re better. (The way you would if you had emphysema.)”

It is not Keyes’ finest work, but that it exists at all is remarkable. She wrote the novel, she has said, in stop-start fashion, between spells when she was too catatonic or scared to switch on the computer. Perhaps as a result, it feels disjointed, with an awkward connection between plot and theme, but it represents considerable bravery on the part of a writer who plumbs her own depths.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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