Ask Again, Yes (2019)- Mary Beth Keane

Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publication date:2019
Publishers: Michael Joseph/Penguin Random House
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Penguin Random House South Africa very kindly sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review.
“… He never doubted that his mother loved him. But as Francis Gleeson once told Kate, love is only part of the story”

In the microcosm that is a small suburban town where the lawns are big and the houses are ordinary and even bigger, Gillam in upstate New York is where being even just slightly different is noticeable, and not optional. Living next door to one another are two families, the Gleesons and the Stanhopes and at face value they are no different to all the other families living on Jefferson Street. The Gleeson household is made up of Francis and Lena Gleeson and their three daughters Natalie, Sara and Kate. Right next door Brian and Anne Stanhope live with their only son Peter.

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In 1973 Francis and Brian were both working as policeman at the Forty-First Precinct, and for a very limited time they were even partners. In 1974 the Gleesons moved to Gillam, and in 1975 the Stanhopes followed suit. Despite being neighbors only Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope became close, and this connection will only be broken when a shocking incident forces them apart, leaves Francis Gleeson severely disfigured and Anne Stanhope in a psychiatric facility.

With so much in common the two families seem like the perfect candidates for lifelong friendships. Francis Gleeson and Anne Stanhope both have origins in Ireland, and also experienced tragedies when they were young. Francis and Brian are both working in law enforcement, and their kids are of very close ages, and in fact Kate and Peter are born only months apart.  Somehow it seems poignant that the two characters (Francis and Anne) with the most in common who never really connect will be at the center of the incident that will rip their families’ already fragile connection apart. Much like a line of dominoes that are set up perfectly and then tipped over with a forceful finger, the lives of these families will tip over in quick succession.

After ‘the incident’ time marches onward and Keane’s narrators change effortlessly from one person to the next as members of the two families begin to tell the tale of their lives, and to attempt to make sense of a tragedy that was so destructive and surprising they will continue to search for answers for another two decades. When dealing with the notion of memory Keane uses all her characters to make true the belief that “memory is a fact that’s been dyed and trimmed and rinsed so many times that it comes out looking almost unrecognizable to anyone else that was not in the room” (2019; 312). Memory as a theme in the novel is joined by forgiveness, regret, the process of human aging in a changing era and the simple fact of the human condition that evolves with each generation.

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As I read this novel I was reminded of the major theme of voyeurism in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window (1954) as Cary Grant’s character watches from his apartment as a crime takes place. For days he had been watching the comings and goings and actions of his neighbors in their individual apartments, and then one day an incident happens that is so violent and unexpected that he struggles to get people to believe him. I think Keane’s novel is more likened to the visual spectacle that was the film, rather than the plot specifically. As the points of view change from Kate to Peter to Francis and to Anne and so forth the details become hazy and we the readers become merely vague witnesses to a story that forces the characters to consider this simple idea: what if I knew then what I know now?

In a lot of ways this novel addresses the notion that had the characters known their future would they have altered their decisions, their actions, and their reactions? Questions of whether alcoholism and mental health are inherited or whether they could have been avoided if certain actions had been taken, or if perhaps those involved had noticed the so-called ‘warning signs’ prior and therefore changed the course of history, are scattered over the trajectory of all their lives.

In the midst of it all is a love story that has transcended pain both physical and emotional, tragedy, loneliness and a loss of faith in humanity’s ability to look beyond the cracks and the broken limbs. Time and time again Kate and Peter defy the odds of their ‘star-crossed’ relationship, and in a sort of full circle scenario the conclusion is such: “Would you have said yes back then if you’d known?”…  “Then and now, I say yes”.

Truly one of the most amazing novels I have read this year. Keane’s writing is superb, her characters are just the right amount of complicated and her novel is scattered with a plethora of themes and motifs that I could quite happily discuss for days. This book is a sparkling gem of a novel, and I almost feel as though I should pick it up and read it all over again if only to satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies, and perhaps also for the pure joy of it.

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