Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

'Heaven Knew The Boundaries Were Blurred': Kirsten Hesketh - Another Us

Marian Keyes is an author well known for exploring family life and the darker motifs of mental illness, divorce and alcoholism in order to find within these emotive shadowlands, the uplifting light of comedy and hope. Keyes once said, ‘I've always used humour as a survival mechanism. I write for me and I need to feel hopeful about the human condition. So, no way I'm going to write a downbeat ending. And it isn't entirely ludicrous to suggest that sometimes things might work out for the best’.

Echoing her belief in meliorism, Kirsten Hesketh’s debut novel Another Us, is an unashamedly heartwarming book and one likely to appeal to fans of Keyes and writers of her stamp. More importantly, it is an ebullient first outing, brimming with benevolence and likely to carve out a distinct fan base of its own.

‘Feel good’ novels are paradoxically often underappreciated from a purely literary perspective, however when on point, and voicing heartfelt lessons which warm a reader from within, this important genre produces books as invaluably rejuvenating as they are entertaining. All too often, female-centric, character driven fiction within this form is ascribed the divisive term ‘chick lit’, a clumsy, label-inviting, pejorative dismissal from some quarters, whilst also being a cause célèbre banner for others.

First associated with the work of Marian Keyes and subsequently rejected by its founder, ‘chick lit’ fiction typically connotes novels employing a strong female character who successfully navigates a myriad of obstacles in order to achieve a happy denouement. Such narratives are an undeniable part of life and are as valid as their antithetical counterparts, irrespective of the literary label ascribed to them. Hesketh’s debut falls within this broad genre, but imaginatively reinterprets its generic boundaries. Our insightful author explores not only life from one woman’s perspective, but the wider notion that whilst reality is often begrimed by guilt and pain, it is also metaphorically transfigured by tenderness, humour, friendship and the resilience gained from hope.

Another Us takes us on a life-affirming comedic canter through the trials and tribulations besieging a protagonist as delightful as she is gauche. For me, It is the literary equivalent of a warm soak in a comforting hot bath on a chilly winter’s evening…likely to gently restore all but the most beleaguered of souls.

Leigh Brackett, best known as the ‘Queen of Space Opera’, sums up the chaotic plot of Another Us rather well when she says, ‘Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter, fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there is an explosion’. Despite the chaotic unfolding of events, the plot like the read itself, zips along with unfettered gusto.

Emma, the chief protagonist takes the role of first-person narrator, positioning the reader as her intimate confidant, privy to her unexpurgated thoughts and emotions as she ricochets through a series of personal and professional vignettes. It is all set within a recognisably current context and exclusively seen through the charming prism of Emma’s subjective consciousness. As such, all the novel’s events are filtered through Emma’s tumultuous emotional and psychological hinterland. Her unabridged inner dialogue is shared directly with the reader, lending the novel a sense of intimacy whilst cleverly allowing Hesketh to immerse the reader in Emma’s giddy world.

Blending a belated cathartic bildungsroman with contemporary social realism, Another Us laces its jaunty proceedings with finely judged, near farcical comedy. Laughter and tears counterpoint one another, but never diminish the effect of either. Emma’s life, like so many lives, is a nuanced admixture of operatic melodrama and pantomime-like fiasco, interlaced with the banality of the quotidian. Unacknowledged truths softly reverberate through events as though faint echoes in a timidly explored cave. Her predisposition to foment comedy and calamity in equal measure is the causative agent of the novel’s admittedly tumultuous plot, and the fertile ground into which Hesketh subtly plants her sensitively modulated authorial themes.

Kirsten Hesketh
Kirsten Hesketh
Emma’s life is as multi-stranded, boisterous and emotionally energetic as any other person on the ‘neurotypical spectrum’, an ungainly clinical phrase denoting ‘normal’. Her life, however seemingly dysfunctional, is therefore relatable by degrees to our own. Consequently, we encounter the motifs of personal insecurity, emotional fragility, romantic longing, filial fidelity, guilt and personal accountability.

Chief amongst Hesketh’s themes though, is that of love, and as Virgil tells us, ‘love conquers all’. The novel’s colourful thematic tapestry is stitched together with love in all of its multi-hued guises. Human affection permeates its pages with delicately modulated, visceral force. Hesketh manages her sensitive thematic cargo with sure-footed competence, intelligence guiding her compassionate pen.

Ostensibly, Emma’s struggles only become potentially insurmountable once her youngest son, ten-year-old Jack, is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. This demarcation point looms in her mind like an invisible, callous adversary in the form of ‘The Statistic’. Emma discovers that eighty percent of the marriages of parents who have a child clinically diagnosed with Asperger’s, fail before the child reaches the age of sixteen. Her response to this diagnosis, together with her impulsive, acutely idiosyncratic reactions to life itself, provide the novel’s heartbeat, pumping its thematic blood through the veins of its character’s bittersweet and often comical misadventures.

Whilst Jack’s diagnosis with autism is the spur for much of the book’s thematic motherload, Hesketh resolutely refuses to centre her novel upon Asperger’s itself. For Hesketh, this much misunderstood and stigmatised condition is just a part of Emma’s life, not its architect or defining principle. Her authorial aim is not to moralise, but to entertain, albeit whilst subtlety illustrating the point that almost any life is a capricious amalgam of momentary joys and emotional vexations.

The novel’s characters are dextrously rendered with convincing psychological and emotional exactitude. Hesketh may not employ richly upholstered prose, but she has, knowingly or not, applied Chekhov’s wise advice to, ‘show not tell’. Emma herself is quite simply a joy to read and know. Hesketh playfully engages her reader and keeps us interested in our troubled, but plucky protagonist as she clumsily stumbles, repeatedly tripping over her own metaphorical shoelaces. We find ourselves willing Emma on, sharing her triumphs and bemoaning her myopic penchant for ludicrously extrapolated interpretations of her life’s self-actuated mishaps. In giving us Emma, our author hopes we may well learn to better understand ourselves and those around us.

Hesketh’s frugal prose style is neither ornamental nor judgemental. Literary Realism, especially that with a domestic focus, demands that its authors eschew polysyllabic obfuscation or florid metaphor. They must instead employ the lexicon of the vernacular in order to bring a novel’s fictional milieu to life. Whilst her descriptive prose is sparse, her dialogue is by turns acerbic or wittily dusted with satirical irony. Hesketh uses language to carry event, not burden it with verbiage. She constructs moments of outrageous humour, skilfully counterbalanced with gently distilled pathos. For me, her writing is consciously paired back to the simple imperative to convey truth, not gild it.

Another Us does have a minor, but mildly deleterious flaw. The novel’s natural denouement arrives unencumbered by extraneous explanation. We have understood our characters and their capricious world, accepted them as the ‘best version of’ themselves and recognised that life is inevitably seen through idiosyncratic eyes. However, Hesketh submits to the moderately operose temptation to neatly wrap up the novel’s emotional loose ends. She adds brush strokes to a painting requiring no further attention. Emotionally replete, I could have done without the cheese course served up as an incongruous epilogue; an entirely idiosyncratic observation and one conveying a subjective predilection, not an unequivocal truth.

So, the ‘feel good’ genre or ‘a rose by any other name’, has found in Another Us, proof, if proof were needed, of testament to its engaging force. The book exemplifies the truth that uplifting fiction can be a rich source of rollicking entertainment and deftly distilled wisdom. Hesketh’s debut is a joyful, uproariously comical book, its bitter-sweet bonhomie shared with vim and gusto…for me, Another Us is another reason to value the precious comfort offered by the pages of a warm-hearted book !

Another Us is published by Canelo.