When Things are Alive They Hum

Book review by Jenny Dowell – see other reviews HERE
When Things are Alive They Hum
by Hannah Bent

When Things are alive They HumWhat a fabulous book!
This one will make you smile, it may make you weep, and it will surely make you think.

Marlowe leaves her post graduate studies into butterflies in London to rush back to Hong Kong where her sister, Harper, is very ill. Harper has Down Syndrome (or as she call it, “Up Syndrome”) and as is common with this condition, her heart is weak. As a baby she had surgery and now in her 20s, only a heart transplant can prolong her life. But having Down Syndrome means she’s not likely to qualify in Hong Kong.

The sisters’ Chinese mother died of cancer when the girls were young and their English dad has partnered with Irene or “The Stepmonster” as Harper and her boyfriend Louis call her. Harper lives with her father, Irene, and grandmother Wai Po.

Hannah Bent is a Sydney writer who was born and raised in Hong Kong. She has a Masters in creative writing, and has studied film directing and screenwriting. Her writing—like Harper’s heart—just hums.

In this beautiful novel, sisterly love, responsibility, and grief are important themes. Chinese medicine and beliefs clash with western medicine too but it’s the ethical issues that create the biggest dilemmas in the narrative. Who has the right to determine the health choices for an adult with Down Syndrome? What rights do a person with an intellectual disability have?

Harper is a joy! She loves writing stories, has a directness in her communication that disarms and simply loves life.

What struck me in this book is the authenticity of Harper’s voice, the chapters under her name are spoken in her words. Her stories are written in her spelling and style. In every way, she rings true!

It was only after I finished this book and read Hannah Bent’s author notes that I saw an acknowledgement of Camilla. Further searching led me to an article about Camilla, the author’s sister who has Down Syndrome. It is evident that not every issue in this novel has arisen in Camilla’s life but in following the darker pathways in the novel, Hannah Bent has delivered an important and highly readable book that will have you thinking long after you close it.

Please read this book. I am confident you’ll love it as much as I do.