Stuff I've been reading, thinking & eating

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It’s the grittiness of Marian Keyes’ novels that has always separated them from the rest of the chick lit pack. In the past she has tackled serious themes like addiction and physical abuse, always managing to maintain the perfect balance of dark and light. Her stories are funny and sad; her characters feel like friends, her writing is sparky and entertaining.

But the topic of her latest book cuts close to the bone for much-loved Irish writer Keyes who since 2009 has been suffering from acute depression. For a while she couldn’t get out of bed never mind write fiction and when she did return to work it was to produce a novel that explores the mental illness she continues to suffer.

The Mystery Of Mercy Close is a comic mystery that takes in Ireland’s economic breakdown as well as reflecting Keyes’ nervous one. That sounds like a lot of dark and not much potential for light so I was concerned the author might have lost her magic touch.

Another in Keyes’ occasional Walsh family series, this is the story of youngest sister Helen Walsh, a private detective whose work has dried up and whose life is falling apart. She’s had to move back in with her parents because she can’t afford to pay her mortgage, worse there are disturbing signs her problems with depression are returning.

Then Helen lands a case to investigate. Her slimy ex-boyfriend Jay pops up to ask her to track down Wayne Diffney, the missing member of boy band Laddz, so they can get back together for a lucrative series of reunion gigs. The trouble is Wayne seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth and Helen, who has few leads, spends most of her investigation time lying on the floor of his house.

There’s no doubt that the descriptions of Helen’s depression are authentic and based largely on Keyes’ own experience. “I felt like I’d been poisoned,” she writes. “Like my brain was squirting out dirty brown toxins, polluting everything.”

Yes, it’s very dark as Helen recounts her suicide attempts and her stay in a psychiatric ward; her struggle to find “anti-mad pills” that work, the mess and pain inside her head. There are sections where it feels as if Keyes is talking directly to the reader, trying to make us understand her sickness, and as you read it’s difficult to put the author aside completely which isn’t ideal in any sort of fiction.

The saving grace is that, while Keyes may feel as if she’s been losing her mind over the past few years, she hasn’t lost her trademark humour. Somehow she’s managed to make a novel about depression as hilarious as it is meaningful. While the mystery that’s central to the plot isn’t especially energising – who really cares whether they find the boy band member or not – and the love story only a side dish, Helen Walsh’s voice is funny, vulnerable and real.

Fans of Keyes – and there are millions of them – may not pick The Mystery Of Mercy Close as their favourite of her novels but I’m willing to bet they won’t be disappointed by it either. And while sufferers of depression won’t find any answers here, they will be rewarded by an entertaining story that accurately and originally describes the way they feel.