For some reason the vast majority of novels and short stories which address the subject of Dementia seem to be focused upon the experience of elderly white women. There are some notable exceptions. However, there is a definite lack of diversity in fictionalised writing about Dementia. As such Sally Hepworth’s The Things We Keep reads like a real breath of fresh air. It focuses upon a young forty year old woman named Anna, who develops early onset hereditary Alzheimer’s and decides to leave her marriage and check herself into a residential care facility so she won’t become a burden on her family.
Rosalind House is much like every other care facility; the majority of the residents are quite elderly. However, Anna soon befriends Luke, another young resident who is also living with early onset Dementia. The two begin a relationship which quickly becomes sexual and subsequently discover that living with Dementia has removed much of their autonomy. They are no longer allowed to make decisions about their relationship or their bodies. Anna’s brother, concerned about her welfare, insists upon keeping them separate and the care staff are forced to comply with his wishes. This decision soon begins to have a major impact on Anna’s mental and physical health.
Although The Things We Keep isn’t the kind of novel I would normally read, I enjoyed it immensely. It’s well-written, funny and touching, moving backwards and forwards in time and employing three first person narrators -Anna, Eve (the resident cook), and Eve’s young daughter, Clementine- to help us piece together the events which have led up to Anna’s incarceration in her own room and the depression she’s suffering from. The style might be light and zippy but the themes explored in this novel are incredibly complex and hard-hitting. It asks huge questions about whether people living with Dementia are capable of loving and being part of healthy relationships.
“But even if they loved each other once, they can’t really love each other now, can they? How can you love someone you don’t remember?”
It wrestles with questions around power of attorney and who gets to decide what’s in the best interests of a person living with Dementia. It addresses issues of autonomy and the lack of autonomy often experienced by people living with Dementia. It explores the thorny subject of sexual consent and takes an honest, unflinching look at the depression and mental health issues associated with Dementia. It also does an amazing job of exploring the disparate responses to a Dementia diagnosis with Luke and Anna both reacting to their illness in very different ways.
It’s wonderful and really refreshing to see all these important questions addressed in such an open, natural way although I will say the final chapter of the book felt a little too neat and resolved for me. I’d have preferred a more complex, incomplete and, arguably more believable, ending to Anna’s story. If this had been a literary fiction novel, rather than commercial fiction I think it might have ended in a more inconclusive fashion. There’s a sense here that even though Anna’s story is far from a fairy tale she’s still being offered a version of the happily ever after ending which I don’t think would actually happen under these circumstances. The Things We Keep is still a great read though, and a welcome addition to the canon of Dementia fiction, adding a much need dose of diversity.
The Things We Keep was published by Pan Books in 2016