Popular Irish author Marian Keyes

Author Marian Keyes, 44, won Ireland’s Popular Fiction Book of the Year award in Dublin at the weekend for her novel “This Charming Man." Happily married to her English husband Tony, 45, she’s come a long way from the depression and alcoholism that marked her 20s and almost ended her life.

It’s surprising how often Marian Keyes books are called “frothy” and “light” by the critics. It makes you wonder if they’ve ever actually read them. In “This Charming Man”, her latest – and easily her best – book to date Keyes tackles rejection, infidelity, bereavement, depression, inferiority complexes and lung cancer and that’s just the first hundred pages.

There’s no question Keyes knows how to write an entertaining yarn, but look past her storytelling skills and you’ll notice that she’s not content to leave it at that. “This Charming Man” is a remarkably compelling novel about a nasty subject - domestic violence - and about the devastation it leaves in its wake. The book is also a bracing reminder of how common homegrown violence actually is.

The statistics that Keyes quotes speak for themselves: two women are killed in Britain every week by their partner or ex-partner. Domestic violence is the greatest cause of mortality there among women in the 18 to 45 age group. In America a woman is hit every second. So it’s rife in every culture but it remains hidden because the victims are often afraid to speak out.

“I was so worried that I was in over my head with this one,” Keyes told The Voice. “I was worried that I’d taken on too big a subject, but the response to the book has been so open. It’s about domestic violence but its not ranting. It’s about the women rather than the issue. I’d like us all to embrace the fact that as human beings we do things that are baffling and inexcusable but that we must still engage with them. To pretend that it doesn’t happen at all isn’t an option.”

Like fellow Irish writer Roddy Doyle, whom she blushes to be compared to, Keyes strikes a delicate balance between storytelling and social commentary. Although there’s a discreetly feminist slant to her new book, it’s not of the man-hating variety. When it comes to being slapped around, after all, it doesn’t actually matter if you’re rich or poor, male or female. Keyes point is that it’s just wrong, and that it hurts all involved.

Says Keyes: “I knew once I’d decided on the subject mater that it would be unavoidably dark, you know? But I really would like people to have moments of comic relief in it as well. So pretty much all of Lola’s storyline is comedic and I had such fun writing it.”

Poor heartbroken Fionnola “Lola” Daly is the first character we meet in the “This Charming Man”. Unceremoniously dumped by handsome cad Paddy de Courcey (the so-called John F. Kennedy of Dublin, and the lover at of all of three female characters in the book at various times) Lola’s in a very public and humiliating free-fall which Keyes conveys masterfully.

Working in Dublin as a personal stylist, Lola is hired to give the wardrobes of her rich female clients the once over, advising them how to “cure” their fashion sense. When she’s called in to save the day for one particularly wealthy heiress disaster strikes when she arrives with the wrong (winter) collection.

Inspired comedic set pieces like these keep the accent on fun and undercut the other characters darker storylines. Keyes gives each of her likeable heroines a different cross to carry, and many readers will find themselves laughing and wincing at the same time.

Says Keyes: “I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to write about domestic violence. I’ve encountered many bad things in my life but mercifully that isn’t one of them. I felt in a way I’d no right to do it. I didn’t want to be putting words in somebody else’s mouth. But I did so much research, I spoke to so many women who were survivors of abuse, and I really felt by the end that I could put myself in their mindset and do a realistic description.”

As in real life, the women in Keyes new book often find themselves isolated. First by the shame, then by the social enduring taboos surrounding getting dumped and domestic violence. “You’re the victim of a crime and yet you behave like you’re the one who should be ashamed,” says Keyes. “I think it’s because many women have been forced into a position of isolation by men, and they’re afraid to trust anyone. Add to that the mortification of admitting that your boyfriend hits you and yet you stay with him. It’s just to much for a lot of women to talk about.”

Keyes own life journey has seen more than its share of drama. At 44 she’s one of the richest women in Ireland, but by any standard she’s taken the scenic route to success. In her twenties she graduated with a law degree from UCD then immediately skipped off to England where she became a waitress and – shortly after that – an alcoholic.

Says Keyes: “I think I was born faulty. I was born with something a bit askew. I always hated myself. Anything I achieved like my law degree, as soon as it became associated with me it became corrupted and therefore worthless.”

Keyes didn’t recognize that by turning her back on her achievements she was being self-harming. Like her heavy drinking, it was just one more way of poisoning herself. And to complement the drinking, she threw herself into one toxic relationship after another.

Says Keyes: “In retrospect I really feel sorry for the blokes. At the time I blamed them for everything – how could they be so mean to me, they were such bastards, all I wanted was love. But I was a nightmare. Not just the getting drunk, but the neediness, fastening myself on to them, convincing myself that my destiny lay with them, they could make me happy. Honest to God I was awful. I knew no better. I didn’t know how to live. I was lost, with no sense of self.”

After a failed suicide attempt at the age of 29 a stint at rehab helped Keyes toward sobriety. Soon after her first short stories submissions lead to the publication for her debut novel, Watermelon. Then she met her partner Tony, an English man who is now also her PA. It’s an unexpectedly happy ending, where none was initially in sight.

Says Keyes: “I love the man I married. But what if he had hit me on my wedding night, because that’s actually when it starts for a lot of women. The thinking is that “You’re mine now.” If he’d hit me a clatter on my wedding night I would have excused it. I would have rationalized it. I wouldn’t have been courageous enough to say Jaysus my marriage is over already. I would have had too much pride; I would have gone into denial. It’s very complicated. This is someone you love, that you have sex with, that you’re tied to emotionally and financially. It’s really messy.”

At some point most women, Keyes says, love bastards. And she even thinks that’s OK up to a particular age. Work away, have your fun, have your dramatic reunions and your passionate door slammings and your rows and your accusations. But it’s a teenage view of romance to be gotten out of your system. Some will be surprised to learn that the famous romantic novelist has a decidedly unromantic take on the human heart.

Says Keyes: “No one relationship is going to entirely complete you. No other human being can do that for you. You will have times when you don’t love them as much or they get on your nerves or you just need a little bit of time out and it doesn’t mean it’s the end of everything.”

“I think people invest too much in romance. People feel they have way too much to lose when they find out the romance isn’t like in the storybooks. But it’s grand; it’s only another relationship. If a female friend treated you like this you wouldn’t agonize over ending things or speaking to them. You’d let them know. The book says, I think, that you can find your way out the darkness. There is help.”

"This Charming Man" by Marian Keyes is published by Harper Collins.