To say that Jay, the protagonist of this wonderful debut novel, is doing it tough, is an enormous understatement. Where do we start.
I will start with her fifteen-year-old twins. Frank suffers from a terrible stutter, chronic asthma, and a skin condition. However, Frank’s problems seem quite benign when compared to his brother. Teddy has autism. And is high on the spectrum. He does not speak at all, communicating through an app on his iPad. He is terrified of the colour yellow. He can’t stand to have his hair cut.
Jay wonders what is going to happen to the twins when she is gone, especially Teddy. This question plagues her day and night. Maybe as a coping mechanism Jay has an imaginary friend who she turns to when in need of assistance and advice. Well, in fact, Keeper, that is what she calls him, seems to turn up on his terms and when he likes. But help he does.
Then we have Jerrick, the invisible husband. Jerrick is never around. He is always off with what seems like a different woman every time he does make a rare appearance on the page. Why does Jay put up with him? Because the twins need her full-time care, so she needs money from Jerrick.
What makes life even more difficult is a health system that is supposed to help families like Jay’s, but bizarrely make their life more difficult with inane bureaucratic regulations that simply do not make sense. Late in the book we find that the funding for Teddy’s iPad will no longer be provided. A General Practitioner whose answer to every one of Teddy’s ailments is Panadol, barely listening to Jay at each appointment.
Jay also cuts out newspaper clippings and pastes them in scrapbooks. These clippings are from real-life and are used to show the failings and inadequacies of a system which does not seem to be able to cope with the plethora of mental health problems that seem to grow yearly. Some of these reports and clippings are quite disturbing.
The novel is broken into two halves with one half devoted to Jay’s upbringing as a child. And we find that Jay had a horrible childhood. A loveless childhood. Jay’s mother, wow what a horrible character. I am quite surprised that Jay turned into such a lovely caring mother who is totally devoted to her twins after growing up and being treated, well mistreated, as badly as she was. Some of the treatment is despicable and bordering on criminal. Perhaps it was this dire childhood that forged her into the woman she is.
This is a dark, novel, but also a novel which shines light on mental health issues and how our country and the systems in place to handle these problems does not seem to be working. Many of these problems go unnoticed until they grow in intensity, metastasizing like a cancer, only to become known to the public when it turns into a story on the news, usually, like the scrapbook clippings, with fatalities.
I seem to have painted a very dark picture with this review, but there are always signs of hope, and there are always good people who go that extra mile to help. The Keepers who work tirelessly and sometimes against insurmountable odds to help those in need. Often within a system that hinders their efforts. And books like this, confrontational and alarming, help to shine light on societal problems. And Mental Health is a problem that needs addressing.
A wonderful debut and a great read. I think we will be hearing more from Al Campbell.
Born in Brisbane Al Campbell is a mother and full-time carer. Long time ago she studied a bit, acted a bit, and pulled a lot of beers. Her first ever publication was in Overland in 2020. followed by a story in Signs of Life - An Anthology. The Keepers all but begged her to write it, given it is about issues - and people - that matter to her more than anything.