Books featuring a sibling with a mental illness

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes

Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin, 2019)
Genre: Domestic Fiction

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are two NYPD rookies assigned to the same Bronx precinct in 1973. They … end up living next door to each other outside the city. What goes on behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the stunning events to come.

Peter, Anne’s only child and Kate, Lena’s youngest, are best friends. In the spring of their eighth grade year a violent event divides the neighbors, the Stanhopes are forced to move away, and the children are forbidden to have any further contact.

But Kate and Peter find a way back to each other, and their relationship is tested by the echoes from their past.”

Ask Again, Yes had been on my radar for a while, and I recently found it at my local library. I loved that it followed the central characters from their childhood until they were middle aged and had children of their own. As well as sensitively exploring parental mental illness from the point of view of both the parent and child, the novel touched upon facial difference and alcoholism with refreshing care.

Keane contended that the impacts of childhood events reverberate through the rest of our lives, as was the case with Peter. Peter’s early childhood revolved around his competing desires to spend time with Kate and appease his mother. Keane’s description of how the house felt when his mum kept to her room was exquisite: “not the peaceful silence of a library…More like a held breath interlude between when a button gets pushed and a bomb is either detonated or defused.” Peter’s father didn’t try to support Anne. Nor did he attempt to properly explain her experience to Peter. Instead, he dismissed it, telling Peter that she was “sensitive,” and that some kids, “have got it worse than you, my friend.” Peter needed a consistent adult, and he only found one after moving away to live with his uncle George. He never gave up on his mother. Not before the incident or afterwards. Peter visited his mother in hospital even when she refused to see him, told himself, “she loved him… That was the way she acted when she was afraid.” Peter, displaying a maturity beyond his years, knew that her behvaiour “didn’t quite have anything to do with him.” Still, Peter developed a restlessness and inability to regulate his emotions that culminated in alcoholism.

 Both Peter and Anne were vehicles for Keane to examine mental health challenges from the perspectives of the individuals living with them. The use of alternating perspectives ensured that the reader/story was not biased towards one family or the other. Francis, Anne, Peter and Kate narrated sections of the novel to great effect. Anne’s sections, in particular, demonstrated that an individual was not defined by a single terrible choice or violent act. They could be – as she was – so much more.       

Kate and Peter’s love story was the center of the novel. Ironically, while Peter had in some ways been his mother’s carer, in adulthood Kate became his. She confronted him about his drinking, organized a bed in rehab and drove him there. Kate supported him even when he relapsed, and Kate initiated contact with Anne. The early relationship between Kate and Peter reminded me of the one between the two main characters in Anne Brinsden’s Wearing Paper Dresses.

Following the violent event of the blurb (I don’t want to spoil the novel too much), Francis had a limp and facial difference. While he had to undergo a great deal of physical therapy to walk again, and initially felt uncomfortable seeing his face in the mirror, my concerns that Francis’ character would be sidelined or reduced to inspiration porn were unfounded. Francis was the same man he’d always been; he still had sexual desires and engaged in sexual activity, for instance. His facial difference was simply one of his features, not his defining one.  

My favourite line was probably this one, towards the end of the novel:
“They’d both learned that a memory is a fact that’s been dyed and trimmed and rinsed so many times that it comes out looking almost unrecognisable to anyone else who was in that room…”

This review is already longer than those I usually write, so I’ll end it here.

Ask Again Yes is an unforgettable story of love – romantic and familial  – and the extraordinary power of forgiveness and grace.

You can buy a copy of Ask Again, Yes from Australian online bookseller Booktopia.

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