Book review: The Keepers by Al Campbell

(courtesy UQP)

We wield the phrase “the weight of the world on their shoulders” about someone struggling with a great burden in terms both hushed and reverent, and often, sorrowfully pitying.

Drawn from the Greek mythological tale about Zeus and Atlas, the latter whom carries the literal world on his enormous but weighed-down shoulders, it is thrown around, as are most of these phrases, with a casual generality, an admission that someone’s life is beyond the normal existential ability of someone to bear.

It’s fine as throwaway descriptions go, but in Al Campbell’s brilliantly evocative novel The Keepers, it becomes readily and poignantly apparent with a savagely honesty and weary intensity that it does not even begin to convey the full scope of what it means to move through life with more than your fair share of backbreaking, soul-sapping complications, as bound to your past as you are to your present.

Jay is a Brisbane mother in her forties to twin fifteen-year-old sons on the autism spectrum – Frank is a cheeky, voluble, stuttering delight who loves the fact that a girl at his school likes him and who is constantly bullied in ways brazen and oblique (though all of them cruel) while non-verbal, highly intelligent Teddy communicates solely through his iPad, bringing up facts at a moment’s notice even as he struggles with sleep, health and a general unease with the world around him.

They are Jay’s world, both because she loves them beyond measure, but also by necessity with her Danish-Australian husband Jerrik, who only married his wife so he could stay in the country, abrogating parental responsibility at every turn.

Can you not move past it? he says of them. To which I say, No, I cannot get past it. I won’t. I’m the only one who doesn’t.

But we’re not saying that tonight. Tonight I say, ‘The only people for me are the mad ones. Who burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’

I don’t know why I recite Kerouac’s words. Maybe to prove I still can. Maybe to see if that part of me is still there, deep inside those plastic crates, mad to live, mad to be saved, spinning and flying.” (P. 9)

There is no suggestion that Jay views her sons as anything other than a blessing and a joy, but the fact is that they do require a punishing measure of 24/7 care, Teddy far more than Frank who is self-functioning enough to learn how to catch buses when push comes to shove, which exacts a huge amount from Jay physically, emotionally, socially, her lot that of carers everywhere who love those for whom they are responsible but who are, because they are human, wearied all the same in ways many of us likely will never comprehend.

If that Atlassian weight was not enough, she is trying to outrun a bleakly torturous childhood, ruled over by a mother whose emotional and mental health deficits meant her daughter lived every day in some sort of weird, Gothic monstrosity of a circus where the rules changed daily, if not daily and minute-by-minute.

The burden loading started early in life for Jay, her only outs being a dazzlingly good scholastic performance, good friends and a grandmother who alone provided some sense of unconditional love and belonging, and as she gets the boys to school, she struggles to get Teddy to sleep (how she does gives a whole meaning to “doing the laundry”) and takes care of the multiplicity of tasks common to any mother, Jay does have pause to wonder how it is that life got to this point and if it is even sustainable?

(courtesy UQP)

It feels like Campbell, an author of breathtaking depth and breadth whose writing is poetically descriptive in ways that makes you laugh while searing your heart to the core, has poured her very heart and soul into The Keepers.

Unflinchingly honest, grimly realistic and yet beautifully human with Jay’s palpable, unending, though sometime challenged, love for her sons a thing of tenacity and endurance, and yes, even hope of the most muscular and grounded kind, The Keepers is a novel that understands how great a toll life can exact on a person.

And how that exacting of a weighty toll can continue even past the point where any reasonable person could cope.

Held aloft but barely by Keep, an imaginary friend of sorts, both fantastically mythic and comfortingly, protectively encompassing, and friends who do their best to provide support where they can, Jay is simultaneously holding up a colossal weighty of a broken, deeply unhappy, dreams-smashed past and a present which while it has her precious, beautiful sons in it, still seems to refuse to do her any favours, especially when Teddy falls mysteriously ill and she encounters a hospital system both dismissive and only intermittently genuine in its care, adding to the sense that she is the only one in her and her sons ever-diminishing and oft-beleaguered corner.

She is also afraid of a future that has yet to show any indication it offers the hope or assurances she needs, evidenced by the scrapbooks she keeps of news stories documenting what happens to people who do not fit easily or comfortably into society’s mainstream flow.

“There is a view that we are forever bound to our mothers, a psychic, imperishable weaving. Cyclone Lonnie is forever in my head. There is no word for the power of her, nor for the power of mothers generally – an agency of terrifying magnitude, entrusted by chance, unpredictably carried to effect. We cannot be spared it; even early dead mothers have their own signature of aftershocks.” (P. 314)

Nuanced and insightful, quietly desperate and yet possessed of moments off rare transcendent joy and victory, The Keepers is an all-enveloping, richly woven and liberating story which never once feels like a slow, deadening plod through the existential weightiness of someone’s life.

With elements of almost urban realism set against a life that is grindingly real and sometimes oppressively lacking in options or respite, The Keepers is really a celebration of sorts – of tenacity, of hope, and of continuing on even when a thousand terrible options fill your waking and sleeping hours.

Don’t expect cake and streamers though – it’s not that kind of celebration; what it is, and it feels more precious than the light, bright confetti-filled giddiness of yet another gathering of people for an hour or two of jollity, is an evocation of what it feels to have the weight of the world thrown at you and land on your shoulders, and yet, how despite all that, and the weight on Jay is neverendingly considerable, you still keep walking.

The Keepers holds up high in terms both furiously agonisingly and quietly accepting, and always honest to its core, a tenuous, fragile sense of victory that Jay has survived her mother’s abuse, her husband’s immaturely cruel indifference, a community that professes care but seems unwilling to genuinely deliver it, and that she has emerged, wounded but standing and alive, her two gloriously good sons with her, at the other end, with a future that might still be uncertain but which will still happen in some form, however imperfect, laced with a hope that Jay scarcely can believe is hers to hold.

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One thought on “Book review: The Keepers by Al Campbell

  1. Thank you, Andrew, for this wonderful review and, more than anything, for engaging so fully and with the book and its central concerns. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your time — especially when you’ve been so poorly. You’ve made a deluxe dud of a week so much briiiiiiiiighter! Thank you. xx

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