Emer McLysaght - Appetite for Distraction

It's frequently written off as a 'frothy' women's book, but, real talk: Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes is a classic of Irish literature

24th November, 2019

Irish author Marian Keyes is a dab hand at anecdotes. If you’re a writer, they’re your bread and butter. You build stories and characters and worlds on them. You gather them throughout your career. Sometimes you might even open up the You’re Doing Great drawer and take your successes out of the Praise folder and look at their associated anecdotes when times get tough.

Sometimes, though, the anecdotes are not fit for the Praise folder, or the Larks folder, or the I Have A Good One for You folder. Sometimes they rankle. Earlier this year Keyes tweeted: “In general, I try not to be snarky or mane. But now and again someone gets in touch and says Rachel's Holiday helped get them clean or sober and I remember the journo who called it 'Forgettable froth' and I have to try hard to QUASH MY IMPULSE FOR VENGEANCE!”

You know, if I had written a book like Rachel’s Holiday and somebody had called it ‘forgettable froth’, I wouldn’t rest until their guts were holding up my stockings. I’m not surprised those two wretched words hang in the cobwebs around Keyes’ You’re Doing Great drawer. I’m not surprised they whisper “vengeance” to her. Because I can say with objective certainty that they are just plain wrong.

The 1997 novel Rachel’s Holiday is a classic of Irish literature. It’s a comic and heartbreaking tale of a Dublin woman in denial about her addiction and subsequent rehab visit. It is the book I recommend most to people when they ask what they should read next. I press copies into hands as presents. I beseech anyone who hasn’t yet picked it up to do so. It is many things, but forgettable froth it is not. Keyes, much like myself, works in the realm of commercial fiction, which is sometimes presented as a bit of a smokescreen for ‘chick lit’. You could probably substitute ‘popular’ or ‘women’s’ for ‘commercial’ and you’d still be in the same wheelhouse. There’s nothing wrong with being popular or commercial or writing for women of course, but these categories are often viewed as less worthy, as appealing to the masses, as perhaps . . . forgettable or maybe a little . . . frothy.

That Rachel’s Holiday is a classic work of literature is a hill that I will die on. I will line each and every snob up against the wall in my bloody revolution. I will explain to them that Keyes’ novel is a masterclass in its use of the unreliable narrator. I will show them how it has been life-defining for some people, and life-saving for others. I will demonstrate that it deals with themes of addiction and relationships and mental health in ways some literary tomes could only dream of. I will press a copy into their hands and grant them a pardon to find a corner and start reading.

I am sick to the back teeth of art produced by and for women being dismissed as forgettable froth. I am bored of the idea that just because something makes you laugh and cry, it must be lowbrow. I’m concerned that there are people who’ve dismissed the likes of Rachel’s Holiday because it had a colourful cover or was marketed towards women. Colourful covers and marketing towards women are not bad things. Women have great taste!

I’m thumping my Rachel’s Holiday bible because 22 years after its release Keyes has announced that she’s eight thousand words into a sequel. She’s produced many books in the Rachel universe, focusing on other family members but Again, Rachel will be the first to follow up on our beloved heroine. Upon hearing the news, I went to my bookshelf and took down one of many dog-eared copies of Rachel’s Holiday that have been in my care over the years. I opened the acknowledgements page and noted that Keyes thanks various friends for allowing her to use their stories – their anecdotes – to help build Rachel’s world:

Thanks to Mags Ledwith for letting me use her ‘Dance of the Stolen Car’. Thanks to Siobhán Crummey for letting me use her ‘Singing in the Decorated Kitchen’ story.

I’m angry that Marian’s Forgettable Froth anecdote has found a place to nestle beside the Dance of the Stolen Car and Singing in the Decorated Kitchen. I’m furious that anyone might have read those dismissive words and condemned Rachel’s Holiday without giving it a chance. I’m thrilled there’s going to be a sequel. And I beseech you to pick it up and read it. It’s got the best subplot about a pair of leather trousers you’re ever going to read.

This week, I will mostly be:

Following . . . Zainab Boladale

Nigerian-born, Clare-raised gaelgeoir Zainab Boladale made headlines this week after she spoke out about racist abuse she’s received online and in person in her role as an RTÉ journalist. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to see the hard work of an inspiring young Irish woman.

Obsessed with . . . Baby Yoda

Disney’s new streaming service Disney+ has hit the States and with it a new obsession: Baby Yoda. The tiny cutie-pie appears in The Mandalorian, Disney’s new live action Star Wars series. Disney+ doesn’t hit Ireland until March 2020 but we do already know that Baby Yoda probably isn’t Yoda at all, given that The Mandalorian is set after the events of Return of the Jedi. Doesn’t stop him being the greatest thing that’s happened to the internet since Keyboard Cat though.

Getting tickets for . . . The Humours of Bandon

Margaret McAuliffe brings her electrifying one-woman narrative Irish dancing show to the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire for one night only on Thursday, December 5. It’s an unmissable show so . . . don’t miss it, I guess?

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