Anybody Out There? By Marian Keyes

Chick-lit ventures boldly beyond the grave
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The Independent Culture

In a previous novel, The Other Side of the Story, the bestselling novelist Marian Keyes bemoaned the fact that writers of popular fiction are rarely taken seriously by the literary world. Her latest novel, however, shows just how flexible a genre chick-lit can be. In a blockbuster that avoids the usual pitfalls - sloppy language, unrealistic characters, unlikely coincidences - Keyes's confronts a subject that worries readers more than men and bad-hair days: how we will cope when someone close to us dies.

Anna Walsh, the novel's narrator, is officially a wreck. Physically scarred and sadder than "the hungry babies in Angela's Ashes", she lies on her parents' Dublin sofa with only one thing on her mind - getting back to New York: which means her best friends, her job (working as a beauty PR for an East Village cosmetics company) and above all her husband, Aidan. The fact that Aidan doesn't appear to be answering her e-mails or phone-calls, however, hints at something dire. Against the advice of her four sisters - characters who have appeared in previous novels -- she returns to Manhattan, where the truth is slowly revealed. Anna and Aidan were in a car accident in which Aidan died.

Reminiscent of the 1990 feel-good movie Ghost, Keyes's novel is both the history of a New York romance, and the story of an ongoing bereavement. Flashbacks of Anna and Aidan's courtship are played out against a Gothamite backdrop of uptown bars and downtown clubs. After Aidan's death, Anna buries herself in the offices of Candy Grrrl and attempts to contact her husband through a series of charlatan mediums and spiritualists. In a devastating narrative twist, she finds that her husband's legacy has survived in ways she could have lived without.

In other hands this melodramatic subject matter might verge on the mawkish, but Keyes keeps the tempo upbeat with super-sized helpings of frisky dialogue and self-mockery. The best lines in the novel belong to Anna's mother who, in an attempt to keep up with her many childrens' love-lives, develops an entertaining sideline in malapropic e-mails. She is particularly fascinated by gay sex, and the romantic life of her neighbour's lesbian daughter.

But this book won't tell you anything you didn't know. Like all good middle-brow fiction it mirrors the status quo.

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