Review: THE BRIGHTEST STAR IN THE SKY by Marian Keyes (2010)

~ By Deborah Bassett

In “The Brightest Star in the Sky” Marian Keyes demonstrates once again her mastery as one of Ireland’s great contemporary story-tellers and her willingness to push past literary genre boundaries. In her latest book, she assembles an eclectic and colorful cast of characters who inhabit the same building on 66 Star Street in Dublin. Told from the point-of-view of a spirit that is visiting the address for a very special mission, we piece together the mysteries that surround each of the building’s residents. There’s elderly Jemima, a warm, caring woman with extrasensory perception and a delightful grump of a dog appropriately named Grudge. There’s Fionn, her charismatic, beautiful, and gifted godson. Then there’s Lydia, who’s quite sure she deserves more from a boyfriend then habitually unreliable Conall, despite her family’s insistence that she does not. Along with the spirit, we wonder why acerbic Lydia is so angry with her Polish roommates. And Maeve and Matt, a newly-married young couple, are desperately, and dangerously, avoiding a devastating past that, as much as they try to escape it, will not stop stalking them. When their carefully constructed, false sense of safety comes crashing in on them, it takes all the members of the house to come together and save them.

Many readers will remember Keyes as one of the pioneers of the chick lit genre with the publication of her first novel, “Watermelon” in 1995. However, over the last decade, Keyes’ novels have increasingly focused on darker themes such as bereavement, alcoholism, mental illness, and intimate partner violence that have taken her writing far beyond the realm of romantic comedy. Keyes shows her breadth as a writer by tackling these difficult topics with grace, tenderness, and humor. She also demonstrates extraordinary insight into her character’s lives. Her own painful struggles with alcoholism and depression are publicly known and it is perhaps these personal experiences with hardship that give her writing its authenticity.

Weaving together the stories of multiple characters is often difficult, but Keyes does so beautifully. Each character is fully developed and the storylines come together effortlessly at the end. Some readers might be surprised at the element of magical realism in this book, a first for Keyes. She unifies the book around a children’s fairy tale that is only briefly hinted at but one which I recognized with delight from my own childhood. One puzzling device she uses throughout the book is understood at the end and caused me to laugh at loud at what was surely a bit of self-satisfying indulgence on the author’s part. Despite the Deus ex machina nature of this particular device, which requires more than a little bit of suspension of disbelief, I appreciated the satisfaction it gave me as a reader. This book, which Keyes herself describes as her favorite, is also my favorite novel to date from this talented author.

The Brightest Star in the Sky” will be out in paperback in the U.S. on July 26, 2011.

Deborah writes women’s fiction and has recently completed her first novel. Visit her online at www.deborahiswriting.blogspot.com.