If you only read one book this year, make it The Keepers (UQP 2022) by Al Campbell. This immersive, extraordinary fictional story, informed by the author’s insightful real-life experience, is an utterly compelling and heartbreaking yet hopeful tale of resilience and trauma. The subject matter is uncomfortable and confronting. The writing is breathtaking.
Someone once said that no matter how hard it is for us to read a terrible story of trauma or abuse or neglect, it serves us to read it, because for someone else, that story is their reality. Not a novel, or fiction, but the truth of their everyday lives. Someone has lived that story. My own experience has shown me again and again that no matter how incredible a fictional story is, the truth is always more difficult to believe.
The Keepers is the story of Jay, the mother of twin sons with severe disabilities. Frank is sensitive, artistic, sweet and constantly bullied, while Teddy is non-verbal, intelligent and struggles to conquer small everyday activities that most of us take for granted. The story centres on Jay’s relentless parenting duties, tied up with the love and care she devotes to her children. This is the most intense depiction of caring for children with disabilities that I’ve ever read.
But it also travails Jay’s childhood, in a series of flashback sections that are horrific, compelling and completely plausible. Jay’s family of origin will stay with me – their cruelty, their loyalties, their bizarre demands, their twisted sense of right and wrong, their desire to control every aspect of Jay’s life, and the ways and means in which they achieve that. Campbell has captured this image of a powerless, determined and traumatised child in a way that left me broken.
Campbell is quoted as saying: ‘…what can I say – I grew up with monsters and I can’t ever not see them (or call them out, or write about them).’ Again, the truth is always more impossible than fiction.
Another devastating aspect of the book is the real-life included statistics – Jay keeps a scrapbook of news reports of cases where disabled children or adults were harmed or died of neglect because of the lack (of support, money, will) of our health care system. She is a survivor, and a truly dedicated carer, and she’s determined her own boys will not end up like any of the people she reads about. She devotes herself to their care a thousand percent. It’s hard to read. Harder still to know that the author has two children of her own with disabilities, and that her struggle and ferocious love is necessarily informed by her own experience with ‘the system’.
Yes, this is an uncomfortable book, as Jay battles the bureaucracy, tries to outrun her own childhood, copes with an absent husband and then struggles even further when Teddy becomes slowly and mysteriously ill, sicker each week with a disease or condition that no-one can diagnose or name, let alone cure.
But the flipside to the many distressing elements of this story is the absolute resilience, hope, fight, courage, determination and loyalty of Jay – and her children – to survive. Love seeps from the pages of this book, a beautiful familial love, a sacrificial, unending, joyful love that readers will recognise and respect.
How does Campbell do it? How does she take such a confronting story and make it accessible and moving and uplifting? Three things. Firstly, stunning literary writing. Evocative imagery and sensory depictions that will blow your mind. Beautiful, gorgeous sentences. Writing that sings from the pages.
Secondly, humour. Jay and her sons (even Teddy, who manages basic communication through an iPad), each display their individual senses of humour. The book is laugh out loud funny in places, the situations so Kafkaesque, the behaviour of characters so deplorable or heart-warming, the dialogue so razor sharp and cutting. Humour lightens the novel and allows the reader a space to breathe.
And thirdly, Keep. Campbell writes a touch of magical realism into this story with the addition of Keeper, her ‘lifelong half-real friend’. With her since childhood, Keep is part imagination, part survival instinct, part nightmare, part dream, a coping mechanism, sometimes scolding Jay or belittling her, sometimes encouraging and supporting her, but always THERE. In her complicated, complex life, Keep has always been the one constant. The nuanced way in which Keep is woven throughout the book is a testament to Campbell’s skills as a writer, and her emotional subtlety.
The Keepers is ‘a fiercely honest novel about the damage done by parents who can’t love, the failures of a community that only claims to care, and the resilience of those whose stories mostly go untold’. Because those without a voice rely on their carers – their parents, mostly – to speak for them. This book cracks open the broken system in which parents must fight tooth and nail for the resources to help them manage, against a bureaucracy that is blind to the financial and emotional toll it takes, and seemingly unable to recognise that a parent or carer’s intimate, loving thread with an individual is stronger and more valuable than anything a third party can provide. Parents usually know their children better than anyone else. This story is a delicate balancing act between Jay as a child, when her family were harmful and no authorities intervened, and Jay as an adult, trying to parent effectively while being told by authorities that others could do a better job (or that it’s more cost-efficient for others to care for her children).
This book will stay with me. I know I’ll be thinking of the characters, and the social situation which suppresses them, for a long time. Brutal, honest, authentic, magical, extraordinary, achingly moving and eternally optimistic, The Keepers is the rarest of novels, one that makes you wish the story hasn’t finished, and makes you believe that somewhere out there, these characters and their stories live on, doing better, being better, becoming more. I cannot recommend this more highly.