In Mary Beth Keane's illuminating novel, the lives of two generations unfold effortlessly, revealing family triumphs and struggles in a poignant exploration into the depths of human emotion.
The representation of family in Ask Again, Yes is complex, deconstructing ideas of the home as a source of support and happiness. The Stanhopes and the Gleesons chase the idyllic image of a quaint home in a good New York neighbourhood, but Keane does not allow them to live out their suburban dream. This might be a story about immigrants in America, but it is not a story of the American Dream. Tragedy haunts the Stanhopes, impacting the lives of both families.
The parallel families motif is an effective narrative ploy by Keane to examine how the actions of our blood alter the course of our lives, with no one person being isolated to suffer the consequences. Friendships between the Stanhopes and the Gleesons draw the latter family into the drama in a non-linear fashion. The novel generally moves forward chronologically, but several moments are revisited from multiple perspectives, enhancing the emotional nature of the work.
This is an intensely character-driven piece, told from a number of narrative perspectives. Keane so skilfully weaves together the voices of burdened adults with their confused children in such delicate constructions that the reader cares for each character and their futures.
This is particularly true regarding one of the two central children, Peter Stanhope, a bright boy who is shaped by his family's struggles with mental health, forcing him to grow up faster than other children his age. His closest friend, Kate Gleeson, similarly has her childhood innocence snapped away from a tragedy their families share.
Their experiences are contrasted with those of their classmates. Peter fails to appear for school graduation and another boy delivers a speech in his place. Kate grows furious at Vincent O'Grady, a boy whose mother 'still peeled and sectioned the orange she packed with his sandwich', as he attempts to give her advice, revealing her new-found maturity.
Keane attempts, somewhat awkwardly, to elevate Kate above the 'average girl' by emphasising her tomboy ways. 'His heart would swell sometimes to see her tearing around from the back of the house in any type of weather while her sisters painted their nails inside.' Nonetheless, this mildly inauthentic note aside, Kate and Peter become central elements to the novel.
The book carefully deals with mental health and addiction, but it is less concerned with the specific diagnosis of the characters and more with the notion of getting help. Negative attitudes towards mental health expressed by some characters in the novel inhibit those who need treatment from getting it. Cover-ups and willful ignorance result in failures to take the necessary action. The novel spans several decades and attitudes alter towards mental health, allowing for healing to take place for some characters. Unfortunately for others, time is the only balm.
'I should have talked to someone. But I didn't.'
'Well, it wasn't done, really.'
'It was. It was beginning to be done.'
Attention is paid to how the characters emotionally respond to events and the mental scars they leave rather than detailing the events themselves.
Despite the dark elements, Keane leaves her reader with a sense of optimism, a message that love can conquer all if we have the strength to prioritise it. Whether this sentiment is reflected in the lives of the characters is debatable, but it does provide a note of hope at the end of a heartbreaking story. Highly recommended.
Read an extract from Ask Again, Yes here