BOOK REVIEW: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Two families fight to break a multi-generational cycle of violence in Mary Beth Keane’s latest novel Ask Again, Yes, a book about tragedy, recovery and hope in the most difficult of situations.

Ask Again, Yes follows two families through decades of shared history, first as neighbours and later as estranged, opposing parties in the aftermath of a violent event that sends shockwaves through their community. The Gleesons and Stanhopes remain connected over time by their youngest children, Kate and Peter, who, despite the complexity of their upbringings, feel tied to each other in the most intense and hopeless way. 

It’s no secret that stories of small-town conflict are a la mode. HBO’s adaptation of the novel Big Little Lies, a gossip-fueled murder mystery penned by Australia’s Liane Moriarty, is about to premiere its second season. Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, revolving around a series of murders in a small town where news travels fast, has overwhelmed bookstores and streaming services alike. But Keane’s take on community tragedy isn’t as driven by cruelty and darkness as its contemporaries, focusing less on pettiness and face-saving and more on forgiveness and love.

Peter, a thoughtful, intellectual young boy, grows up in a household dominated by his mothers’ undiagnosed mental illness and his fathers’ absenteeism. Throughout his childhood and young adult life, Peter grapples with trying to forgive the two people who were supposed to take care of him and finds himself slowly beginning to exhibit many of the traits that made his parents so difficult to live with. His childhood best friend Kate, who grew up in a loving household next door, struggles at times to understand Peter’s behaviours and decisions, seemingly unable to imagine what he went through to become the person he is.

Keane’s portrayals of mental illness, addiction and rehabilitation in Ask Again, Yes are frank and refreshing. There’s no demonizing of psychological conditions, but rather a portrayal of the hard work, strict regimens and years of recovery patients go through to live well with their illnesses. Keane beautifully narrates the experiences of both the sufferers of mental illness and their loved ones, demonstrating how difficult it can be for both parties to accept the realities they find themselves in and how beneficial it can be to show kindness, empathy and patience – even when it feels impossible.

Ask Again, Yes is a story about a crime, but never feels like a crime story. The line between victim and perpetrator is blurred, smudged by the complicated events leading up to the tragedy itself and made even more nuanced by what unfolds for the Gleesons and Stanhopes in the aftermath. Keane shows that violence does not always have to beget violence. There are many instances in which violence can beget kindness if those involved are open to trying.

The lives of Keane’s characters are laid bare in Ask Again, Yes, their wounds reopened by the poignancy of her storytelling. Each chapter is filled with heartbreak and realization and healing, although not necessarily in that order. The power of Keane’s writing comes from her ability to travel through decades of time and still maintain her character’s unique qualities and characteristics flawlessly. As a writer she has a gift for moving fluidly between different perspectives and timelines and weaving everything together to create a story that’s compelling, incredibly well written, and deeply moving.

Ask Again, Yes is one of this year’s absolute must reads.

DISCLAIMER: An advance digital copy of Ask Again, Yes was provided to me by Simon & Schuster Canada/Scribner Books in exchange for my honest review.