I read Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes a couple of years ago finishing it with a vague feeling of disappointment. I’d expected the kind of undemanding read you can sink into and forget the world for a while but Keane’s novel fell just short of that mark. Something about The Half Moon made me decide to try again; maybe it was that very appealing jacket or the shoutout from Miranda Cowley Heller whose The Paper Palace had provided what Ask Again, Yes had failed to do. Whichever it was I’m glad I did. Set in a small American town, Keane’s new novel follows Malcolm and Jess, recently separated, over a blizzard-hit weekend.
He’d learned over the seventeen weeks since Jess left that waiting for something to happen was exhausting, as if a door slammed four months earlier were still slamming, and he was still standing there, flinching, body tensed, waiting to find out what could come after.
Malcolm and Jess grew up in Gillam but while she went away to law school he stayed, working as a bartender at the Half Moon for a couple of decades. After shaking hands on a deal he was less than honest about with Jess, Malcolm has owned the bar for two years, making changes that haven’t gone down well with the regulars, leaving him financially exposed and under threat from his creditors. On top of that, he and Jess have debts accumulated through years of infertility treatment, finally at an end. Once the full extent of Malcolm’s dishonesty is clear, Jess decides it’s time for a break. The storm hits during the bar’s busiest month leaving Malcolm desperate for the weather to clear while Jess has arrived for her first weekend in Gillam since leaving their home, taking tentative steps towards what may become a new relationship. Meanwhile, a regular has gone missing after picking an uncharacteristic fight.
“Almost too late” was actually the same as “in the nick of time.”
Keane’s novel slips smoothly between Malcolm and Jess unfolding the story of their relationship and how it has faltered under the strain of her unhappy childlessness and the financial burdens borne by them both. Each is very different from the other but both are appealing enough to engage our sympathy as they navigate their way through the roller coaster misery of failed IVF and the difficulties of running a business that’s hit the skids. Keane catches the claustrophobia of living in a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and isn’t afraid to share it counterbalanced by long enduring friendships and neighbourliness. No literary fireworks here, just a story well told, one that might be just the ticket if you’re looking for something to pack in your holiday suitcase.
Michael Joseph: London 9780241546840 304 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)