Cover of book: The Keepers

Al Campbell
The Keepers

“This is a tragic case” concludes an article in a scrapbook kept by Jay, a full-time carer to her two sons and the narrator of Al Campbell’s debut novel, The Keepers. It’s one of many stories about neglect, abuse and deaths of people with disabilities that Jay extracts from newspapers and reports – a loosely assembled archive of horror.

The word “tragic” often makes a horrific incident seem like something that has come out of the blue, an anomaly or an aberration. But as Jay navigates conflicting medical opinions, the privatised labyrinth of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and constant exhaustion, it becomes clear these incidents are not random. They are the result of systems that consistently fail people like her sons, Frank and Teddy, and their carers.

Jay is acutely aware she is the only thing that stands between her boys and the kinds of tragedies she archives. If Jay falls apart, their lives will too. Campbell’s experience as a full-time carer allows her to offer intimate details of days spent wrangling multiple appointments, cleaning up vomit and abiding the stares of strangers. But these days are also filled with beautifully wrought moments of laughter and tenderness, witty, caustic responses to a barrage of unsolicited advice and the ever-spinning coin of hope and disappointment.

The novel moves between the present and Jay’s earlier life, where Jay’s devotion to her children contrasts starkly with the abuse she endured. The respite young Jay finds in books, her dog and kind friends is constantly snatched away by her mother and grandfather. The only constant in Jay’s life is Keep, a ghoulish presence reminiscent of Max Porter’s Crow or a much kinder version of Jennifer Kent’s Babadook, with the parental isolation and grief they embody. “I am here with you now,” says Keep. “All day, all night. Keeping the darkness at our heels.”

The Keepers’ sprawling narrative reflects a life filled with a dizzying number of demands that pull in multiple directions. But occasionally the story becomes overwhelmed by too many threads competing for space, and some characters, lacking the depth and complexity of Jay, Frank and Teddy, feel a little too neatly boxed into “good” or “bad”.

The heart of this story, however, keeps it ablaze – a mother’s determined, burning love for her sons and her equally burning anger at a world that refuses to nurture them. 

Caitlin Doyle-Markwick

UQP, 336pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "The Keepers, Al Campbell".

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Reviewer: Caitlin Doyle-Markwick

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