Marian Keyes: A darker side to chick-lit

The Irish author went from alcoholism to being a best-selling millionaire. Then depression struck. Will her own story have the happy ending common to all her books?

Paul Vallely
Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00 GMT

There is something about Marian Keyes that the parents of any young child will recognise.

You see it in young kids when they are about to develop a fever; it is a brittle energy, a garrulous febrile brightness, a flushed anxiety to be loved . You can see it in the multi-millionaire Irish novelist who this week has been in the spotlight after owning up to being crippled by a depression so bad that she can't eat, sleep, write, read or talk.

You don't have to have met her. Or read any of her novels. Just look at one of the dozens of video-blogs she has posted on YouTube over the years to publicise her books, which have sold 23 million copies and been translated into 34 languages. It's all there, behind her cheerful Irish voice and her chatty conversational style and whimsical Irish humour.

But then her dedicated readers already know that. Marian Keyes writes smart, sassy, sexy comic novels as high gloss and deftly applied as the lipsticks of her strong twenty- and thirtysomething female characters. But the comedy is imbued with dark themes which she says reflect the real problems facing modern woman including serious illness, domestic violence, rape, bereavement, alcoholism and depression.

All of her books, she says, are "a comedy about something serious". The humour and the pathos, she recently told one interviewer, are "very much a reflection of me. I'm very bleak, really melancholic. But I've always used humour as a survival mechanism".

It is why her books all have happy endings. "I write for me and I need to feel hopeful about the human condition," she said. "So [there's] no way I'm going to write a downbeat ending. And it isn't entirely ludicrous to suggest that sometimes things might work out for the best."

There was every hope they would in 1963 when Marian Keyes was born to what was, outwardly, a happy enough and uneventful childhood in Limerick in the west of Ireland. As a girl she moved to the suburbs of Dublin, studied law and accountancy at university there and then moved to London in her twenties where she worked in accountancy.

But inside, she says, she always felt like "a weirdo – like someone from another planet watching the natives". Depression, she says in retrospect, was a looming presence in her life from the age of 11. "I was an alcoholic in waiting."

It was during her twenties that this low self-esteem slipped into serious alcoholism. At the age of 30 she swallowed pills and vodka in her London flat and then panicked and rang a friend. Her family acted determinedly and sent her, unwilling, to a rehab centre in Dublin in the mid-1990s. She has not touched alcohol since.

One of the few things that had made her happy towards the end of her drinking days was writing short stories. Now dry, she sent them to a publisher, lying that she was working on a novel as well. They asked to see it, so she had to start writing it. It became Watermelon, her first book, and earned her a name as one of the pioneers of the "chick-lit" vogue. That was 1995 and the best-selling novels followed on an almost annual basis.

Her private life blossomed too. She married Tony Baines, a Cambridge economics graduate, and the couple moved back to live in Dun Laoghaire. Before Tony, she says, "I thought relationships were all about passion, and fights, and doors slamming, and 'Come back', and sex on the carpet! But all that drama was just a substitute for genuine feeling. We are great companions and we are so in each other's corner."

And if her fiction drew on what she called the "incredible database of pain" that was her past she wrote about it with compassion and hope – and a sense of nuance that is not commonplace in the chick-lit genre. "Pain is inevitable," she said, "but suffering is optional."

But her immediate selling point was that she was smart and funny, and an easy denizen of the post-feminist era in which gender liberation doesn't mean giving up smart handbags. Look up her YouTube entry on "feathery strokers", "plastic surgery" or "second goodbyes" and you will understand the attraction of her closely observed self-deprecating wit.

But there was only the barest flicker of that jauntiness on her website when she posted her monthly newsletter to fans this week. It read:

"Regular readers know that I've been prone to depression on and off over the years but this is in a totally different league. This is much much worse ... although I'm blessed enough to have a roof over my head, I still feel like I'm living in hell. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't write, I can't read, I can't talk to people. The worst thing is that I feel it will never end."

Beneath it she had posted a few "comforting and inspiring bits and pieces" she had been looking at because she couldn't manage to read anything very long. "The fog is like a cage without a key," one said. "The mind is its own place and in itself can make heaven of hell and a hell of heaven," said a quote from Milton. Another, the Alcoholics Anonymous slogan: "This too shall pass."

The reaction from readers was instantaneous. Within a few days there several hundred sympathetic responses on her website. What was striking was how many of them had shared her battle with depression. As many as one in 10 of the population have been inflicted with the curse, wrote Professor Lewis Wolpert, elsewhere. Some three million people in the UK suffer from it, including celebrities such as Ruby Wax, Tracey Emin, J K Rowling and Caroline Aherne.

Severe depression involves symptoms which include depressed mood most of the day; diminished interest or pleasure; significant gain or loss of weight; inability to sleep or sleeping too much; reduced control of bodily movements; fatigue; feelings of worthlessness or guilt; inability to think or concentrate; thoughts of death or suicide.

It is sadness become pathological. "Sadness is a normal and universal emotion," Professor Wolpert wrote. "Its function is to restore one's emotional balance after loss; young children will become sad if their mother leaves them alone in a room. But just as normal cells become cancerous, sadness can get out of control."

There seem many causes of depression. There is a genetic factor; if one identical twin gets depressed, the chances rise that the other will. Women are twice as likely to suffer as men – a third after "a life event that humiliates or traps them". Lower-class women are even more prone than middle class. Bereavement, neglect, abuse or illness – like a heart condition – can trigger it. Body chemistry, like low levels of serotonin, has an effect.

Depression is a word, wrote William Styron, "that has slithered through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control".

Another sufferer, responding to Keyes, wrote: "It's like being buried alive. Crushed under the weight of your own sadness, the sound of your own name makes you sick, a ringing phone makes your heart thump and the act of putting one foot in front of the other makes you weep with panic. It's madness: irrational, mystifying and lonely."

Non-sufferers find all this perplexing. "Multimillionaire author Marian Keyes has fans across the world and a husband who adores her. So why is she depressed?" asked the Daily Mail. But those who suffer insist there is no why. Depression is an unprovoked existential reality. "I know lots of people don't believe it, but depression is an illness," Keyes wrote, "but unlike, say, a broken leg, you don't know when it'll get better."

Hang on in there, was the only consistent message of those who flooded her website with sympathy and good wishes. Depression doesn't have a timetable, wrote one.

One of the quotes which Keyes posted was from Winston Churchill: "If you are going through hell, keep going." One of her fans countered with something by Camus: "In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."

But as Marian Keyes must know, the strain of locating that place where the sun can once again shine can be incredibly painful.

A life in brief

Born: 10 September 1963 in Limerick in the west of Ireland, the eldest of five children. Her father was a local government worker.

Education: Read law at University College, Dublin.

Family: Married Tony Baines, a Cambridge economics graduate, who is now her manager. They could not have children.

Career: Accounts clerk and hard-drinking disco diva in London in her twenties. Gave up drinking and started writing novels: Watermelon, 1995; Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married, 1996; Rachel's Holiday, 1998; Last Chance Saloon, 1999; Sushi for Beginners, 2000; No Dress Rehearsal, 2000; Angels, 2002; The Other Side of the Story, 2004; Anybody Out There?, 2006; This Charming Man, 2008; The Brightest Star in the Sky, 2009.

She says: "I'll be an alcoholic until the day I die. I will never be cured. It has to be managed on a daily basis. When I drank, I drank to kill pain. If I'm upset I still want something to numb me out. I've got to watch that. I still get awful depression. It's who I am"

They say: "Keyes's greatest strength as a writer is her unerring eye for comic vulnerability. Though perceptive and funny, she is a sympathist, rather than a satirist" - Play magazine

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