MARIAN Keyes is reflecting on how the world has changed since she began writing books. An era stretching across a quarter of a century from her debut novel Watermelon in 1995 to her latest, Grown Ups, published this month.

More specifically we are discussing how her native Ireland has evolved, from the rapid economic growth of the so-called "Celtic Tiger" through the mid-1990s and early 2000s to the catastrophic impact of the financial crash post-2008 which reversed those fortunes.

In more recent years, the soaring cost of living in the capital Dublin has seen many, particularly young people, unable to afford accommodation – a factor reportedly not helped by a mushrooming number of Airbnb-style lettings (something that Keyes touches upon in her new book).

"Since I started writing, Ireland has gone through so many transformations," she says. "The run-up to the Celtic Tiger and the almost insanity of it. Then the horror of the crash and how it absolutely devastated the confidence of the country.

"Then the government introducing austerity and using it as an excuse to rein back on public spending, social housing and providing health care for those who needed it.

"Now we are left in a very weird position where the economics of austerity haven't been entirely done away with. There is no social housing being built in Ireland and there hasn't been for decades. We are in desperate need of it.

"Our health system – I've heard it being described as comparable to that of a Third World country," she continues. "Then there are other hangovers like the fact that 92 per cent of our schools are still controlled by the Catholic Church.

"So there is plenty of change that still needs to happen and a lot more public spending in order to take care of the most vulnerable in our country."

It is a statement which sums up the essence of Keyes. Few have done more to take the temperature of modern Ireland over the past 25 years than she has. Yet, when her early books were published, they were often labelled as "chick lit" – the frothy genre popular in the late 1990s – which did her writing a huge disservice.

Granted, Keyes has a keen eye for the nitty gritty of relationships and does a canny line in laugh-out-loud humour, but the worlds she conjures are a far cry from the bubblegum brand of romance novels synonymous with pink-hued covers adorned with handbags, high heels and neon cocktails.

The Limerick-born author has fearlessly tackled subject matter including domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, bereavement and divorce. Grown Ups is no exception. It centres on the Casey family, unpicking the dark secrets of the outwardly glamorous brood.

Among its far-reaching themes are disordered eating, grief, blended families, compulsive spending, infidelity, a lack of affordable housing and the crude prejudices often levelled at asylum seekers.

Keyes, 56, has a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. One of the standout characters in Grown Ups is Nell, an impressive young woman who buys only second-hand clothes and doesn't want children because of the climate emergency.

Not every writer has the skill or dexterity to pull off this level of "woke" without it seeming trite, forced, virtue signalling or even preachy. Kudos to Keyes, then, who strikes the perfect tone been conscience-pricking and compelling.

"I live in the real world and social issues really matter to me," says Keyes. "I don't think it is appropriate to write a novel set in current Ireland without acknowledging the fact that people of Nell's age [millennials and Gen Z] are never going to be able to afford to buy a house.

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"As it is, it's next to impossible to even rent a place here in Ireland. We have a homelessness problem and we also have a housing crisis. I really worry about our attitude to the very vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in our country.

"These things matter to me and I think that, as long as I am not hitting the reader over the head with the points I am making, it is important to include those details in whatever fiction I am writing. It is a fine line to walk. It can't be an issue for issue's sake; it has to seamlessly fit in with the overall story."

When we speak the Irish general election has not yet taken place (although one might argue a swing to the left-wing nationalist party Sinn Fein could be viewed as further testament to how the political, socio-economic and cultural landscape is shifting). Another history-making moment at the polls came in 2018 when the Irish people voted by a landslide to repeal the eighth amendment of the country's constitution and legalise abortion.

In the lead up to the referendum, Keyes was a vocal supporter of the Together for Yes campaign. "Lending my voice to the campaign to Repeal the Eighth is one of the things in my life I am most proud of," she says. "There was 66 per cent who voted in favour of repealing, but nobody expected that. On the day of the vote, I really thought there was still every chance that the No side could win.

"It was risky, I felt. That was something many people felt. It was risky coming out in support of repealing it. I was scared. I was personally scared.

"When you have been brought up in a theocracy, which is pretty much what Ireland was, and are brought up to be so frightened of the church and its power, it took, for me, a huge act of courage to stand up and say my piece.

"I think it might be easier for the younger women," she adds. "But I was 54 at the time and I had been brought up in a country where the priests and the nuns ran everything. That kind of programming goes very deep. It was so wonderful and joyous that it [the Yes campaign] won."

Her 2017 novel, The Break, laid bare the difficulties faced by Irish women in accessing abortion. It was a bold move and not without consequence. "My own mother said to me: 'You will lose readers over this'. I realised, yes, I would, but I didn't care, because making the point was more important."

The "programming" Keyes mentions is a stark reminder of how potent the issue was for those in Ireland. Staunch opponents fought hard to maintain the status quo. As a result, many people – publicly at least – felt unable to voice their support for abortion laws to be overhauled.

Keyes pauses, letting the enormity sink in. "We were all scared. But we didn't have to be that scared because the percentage that voted Yes was high."

The strict abortion laws, says Keyes, left a deep scar for generations of Irish women. "It was never talked about," she attests. "Somebody might tell their close friend they had gone to Britain or the Netherlands for an abortion but often people didn't.

"They would come back from some fake mini-break and try to carry on as normal. People were so afraid of being judged that they couldn't tell the people closest to them.

"A lot of people spoke afterwards about the effect that silencing had on them. Any woman, if they had managed to get the pills online, they were liable for 14 years' imprisonment. It was not just a fear of social ostracising. You were literally a criminal."

Keyes is sanguine as she reflects on how the referendum became a rallying cry. "One of the things I have found so joyous about it is how politicised younger Irish women are," she says. "They are so vocal about women's rights.

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"The younger women are not scared the way I was. If men criticise or mock them, they are able to articulate their rights. I find them really inspiring. They gave me so much courage through the Repeal the Eighth campaign and they continue to do so.

"They have the language of feminism in a way that I didn't. They are also very aware of the inequality between the rich and the poor. They are very angry about our housing crisis and they want asylum seekers to be treated differently."

Something else that notably contrasts with her early writing days is the advent of social media (Keyes is a dab hand at Twitter). "It is so funny because my publishers wanted me to go on Twitter to use it as a tool to sell books. I went on Twitter and I fell in love with it. Now I do nothing but waste time on it.

"Lots of people follow me on Twitter who have never read my books and are never going to read them – they are quite open about it – and it is such a gigantic waste of time, except the craic I get out of it and the enjoyment.

"People will let me know if they have liked something I have done and they will let me know if they haven't liked something which, obviously, nobody likes hearing. Well, I certainly don't anyway.

"I suppose, as I have got older, I have realised that you can't please all the people all of the time. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. My skin has definitely got tougher. And the opportunity to be in contact with readers is something I have always enjoyed."

While witty banter about her favourite TV shows (Strictly Come Dancing, Love Island …) and the hilarious antics of her extended family are a mainstay of her Twitter feed, Keyes doesn't shy away from sharing the more painful moments of life.

Such as her late father, Ted, being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. After his death in December 2018, she drew strength from the outpouring of support among her online followers.

"It is very much a two-way street," says Keyes. "People are very wise. They tell me things that help. Very often if you put your vulnerability out into the world, you will give people the courage to come back to you with their vulnerability.

"People have really helped me and warned me what to expect from grief as well. Because, for me, so much of grief is about exhaustion. In the year since Dad died I've been in a lot of physical pain. My hands are in agony. I have arthritis in them and since Dad died they have been in a lot of pain."

Grief has affected her in other ways too. It is woven into the bones of Grown Ups. The book spans a hefty 643 pages. How long did it take to write?

"A good long while," says Keyes. "I had the plot and all, but then a while into it, my dad got very sick, physically I mean – he'd had Alzheimer's for a long time. It was eight months of terribleness. He moved to a home. He was constantly sick physically and kept getting infections.

"The book was meant to have been finished over a year ago and published in September 2019. Everything kind of went weird on me. My head wasn't working. My heart wasn't working. I couldn't connect with my characters.

"Then Dad died in December 2018. I sat in front of my computer every single day and I couldn't end the book. I can't put it any better than that. It was like I had a dead arm to my brain. You know that punch to your upper arm and you can't move your arm? It was like that.

"I was unable to write and find an ending I believed in. Mercifully, because I have decent publishers, they moved the publication date.

"Then, around June or July, I got that feeling, you know when you are on a plane, your ears pop and suddenly you can hear? Something popped and I thought, 'Oh, right,' and it was suddenly clear, but before that I could not access it. Grief is a very powerful thing."

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Our past life experiences of loss can affect how grief impacts upon us, I muse. "Completely," she agrees. "They all stack up on each other. The grief triggers the whole lot in a domino effect. It is not just missing my dad that has been thrown on, it is all kinds of things from long ago."

Keyes pauses. "You sound like you have lost a parent." My dad, too. "I'm really sorry," she says. "It is unpreparable for, isn't it? We were given 48 hours and he died within 44 hours. But I still didn't believe it. Nothing can prepare you even when you have time to prepare."

Returning to our theme of how things have changed since she began her career, it strikes me how much the conversation surrounding mental health has opened up. Keyes has never been afraid to put her head above the parapet on that front and has always spoken with searing honesty about her lengthy battle with depression, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.

"I find it very hard to dissemble," she says. "I would rather be honest about who I am. Right from the very beginning I was open about being in recovery for alcoholism.

"I didn't want to hide it because a) I wasn't ashamed and b) I didn't want to live in terror of suddenly one Sunday morning the front pages saying: 'Marian's secret drinking …' or whatever. I have never felt that mental illness is anything to be ashamed of."

Last month, Keyes marked 25 years of sobriety. Before that, in December, there was another special occasion when she celebrated 24 years of marriage with her husband Tony Baines, affectionately nicknamed "Himself", who she lives with in the seaside town of Dun Laoghaire, south-east of Dublin.

She laughs when I marvel at it only being a year until their silver wedding anniversary. "It is scary where the time has gone. I think if you are married a long time you live through several marriages. Things change. People change. You sort of have to recommit again and again.

"Nothing is guaranteed ever. I'm very aware of that and I never want to sound like the smug woman who thinks it is all zipped up and boxed away because nothing is. That is one thing I have learned as I have got older.

"Honestly, when I got married, I was so naive and idealistic. I thought love would take care of itself. I thought you were in love and got married and that was it, you didn't have to do anything."

There is amusement mixed with incredulity in her voice. "Whether it is with your sister, best friend, the person who works beside you, every relationship goes through weird spells, every single one.

"Just because it is your sexual partner, that doesn't exempt it from those weird spells. We are all changing all the time and, if you are lucky, you change in the same direction. But having said that, Himself is lovely. I am almost afraid to say more in case I'm smited."

The verdict? The world may have changed but the magic of Keyes remains undiminished.

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20