Aussie Book Review: The Things We Keep by Sally Hepworth

"A novel of love undaunted by obstacles, from the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives.

Rosalind House might not be the first place you'd expect to find new love and renewal, but within the walls of this assisted living facility two women have their lives changed forever.

Anna Forster, in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease at only thirty-eight years of age, knows that her twin, Jack, has chosen Rosalind House because another young resident, Luke, lives there. As if, Anna muses, a little companionship will soften the unfairness of her fate.

Eve Bennett also comes to Rosalind house reluctantly. Once a pampered, wealthy wife, she is now cooking and cleaning to make ends meet.

Both women are facing futures they didn't expect. With only unreliable memories to guide them, they have no choice but to lean on and trust something more powerful. Something closer to the heart."

“A few months ago, presented with the knowledge that life wasn’t going to be what I’d planned, I wanted to check out, close the book. But now, it’s like suddenly I’ve found a few more pages. And it feels like, against all likelihood, the last chapter might be the best one of all. The last chapter, in fact, might be something great.” – Anna

The advert on both the telly and the radio featuring National Ambassador for Alzheimer’s Australia, Ita Buttrose, is the first thing that came to mind while reading this book. When I first heard that advert I was absolutely shocked (and quite obviously totally uneducated as far as Alzheimer’s disease went) that not all sufferers are of the older generations.

According to Alzheimer’s Australia:

“Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms of a large group of illnesses which cause a progressive decline in a person’s mind. It is a broad term which describes a loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and normal emotional reactions, as well as speech and behaviour change. The term younger onset dementia is usually used to describe any form of dementia diagnosed in people under the age of 65. Dementia has been diagnosed in people in their 50’s, 40’s and even in their 30’s.

Dementia in younger people is much less common than dementia occurring after the age of 65. For this reason it can be difficult to diagnose, however, the latest figures show that younger onset dementia affects approximately 25,100 Australians”.

And so it is, under the auspices of Younger Onset Alzheimers, that Sally Hepworth frames her novel, The Things We Keep, introducing us to her main character, thirty-nine year old Anna who has been placed into residential care after being diagnosed and leaving her husband.

Not only do we journey along with Anna through her swift descent from mild to severe Alzheimer’s, we also share in a beautiful story about a woman who, although her brain is rapidly deteriorating, teaches us that people who suffer from this terminal illness are still capable of having emotional connections and knowing exactly where “home” is.

Told from three different perspectives – those of Anna, both in the past and present; Eve, who has experienced some low blows in the past few months and been employed at Rosalind House as a cook cum cleaner; and Eve’s loveable, if somewhat precocious daughter, Clementine ("Clem”) - Sally enriches the story by allowing her characters to react to the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

While Anna is broken in one way, Eve and seven year old Clem (or is it Beatrice, Laila or Sophie-Anne?) are broken in another, after Richard, Eve’s husband, does the unthinkable and she is left behind to pick up the pieces of her life as a single mother.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Sally Hepworth has done an immeasurable amount of research into her subject and she expertly uses Anna and the people around her to show us the progression of this degenerative disease.

It’s a story that woke me up to what goes on in the lives of Alzheimer’s sufferers on a daily basis – the struggles, the fears, the pain and the once long-held dreams of those struck down by this debilitating disease. Ultimately though, it’s a story that offers hope – hope to family members of sufferers that their loved ones, although damaged in one way, are in fact still very much alive deep inside and hope that scientific study will one day come up with a cure so that these afflicted people will be able to live the lives they were meant to – and I just loved the little tale about Rodney and Betty.

Sally also touches on themes of bullying, friendship, grief, forgiveness, romantic love and the love a parent has for their child and, while much of the novel is quite touching, she is very insightful, humorous and not without sensitivity. Eve’s perspective as an outsider teaches us to never contradict a person with Dementia but instead allow them to live contentedly in their own world thereby easing their anxiety and making the remainder of their lives as comfortable as possible.

She is a skilful writer who writes about a weighty subject but never allows it to slip into the teary category, instead lacing the goings on at Rosalind House with bursts of humour, and there were moments I found myself chuckling unexpectedly - Anna may suffer from Alzheimer's but she certainly hasn’t lost her sense of humour and neither, for that matter, have the older residents!

A remarkably uplifting, satisfying and memorable read, I thoroughly appreciated the way Sally portrayed the human face of this terrible disease, allowing me to live in Anna’s world for a while and see her as a whole person rather than someone with cognitive disabilities.

I wish to thank Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a hard copy for review.

About the Author

Sally Hepworth has lived around the world, spending extended periods in Singapore, the U.K. and Canada, where she worked in event management and Human Resources.

While on maternity leave, Sally finally fulfilled a lifelong dream to write, the result of which was Love Like the French, published in Germany in 2014. While pregnant with her second child, Sally wrote The Secrets of Midwives, published worldwide in English, as well as in France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 2015. A novel about three generations of midwives, The Secrets of Midwives asks readers what makes a mother and what role biology plays in the making and binding of a family. 

The Secrets of Midwives has been labelled "enchanting" by The Herald Sun and "smart and engaging" by Publisher's Weekly and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally's debut English language novel as "women's fiction at its finest" and "totally absorbing".

Sally lives in Melbourne with her husband and two children and is currently working on her next novel.


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