Friday, May 11, 2012

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy

This novel is a very well-written and compelling story whose main theme is pedophilia. How does one review or recommend such a book? I know it was good, but...did I like it? I was upset by it, and anxious, and uncomfortable - it wasn't a pleasurable experience to read it, but in another way it was, because it was so technically well executed. It's like trying to review Hotel Rwanda.

The story follows the actions and thoughts of four main characters - Celia, a single mother working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet; Rachel, her beautiful mixed-race daughter who is happy and lovely and practical; Ron, a pedophile (but not a child molester) in denial, who runs a vacuum-repair shop; and Nancy, Ron's girlfriend, also working two jobs, struggling with addiction and a history of abusive relationships. Ron sees and starts to follow Rachel; he gets it in his head that she is being neglected by her mother and sexually abused by their landlord, Mika. Ron abducts Rachel for her "protection". Most of the book is about Ron and Nancy concealing and taking care of her, and Celia (and Mika) looking for her and freaking out, understandably. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to the characters' pasts, lending a lot of intrigue and partial explanations without taking away from the story. 

The key to the story is Nancy, who is manipulated by Ron's belief that Rachel is being abused. She knows there is something wrong with what they're doing, but she also thinks they are protecting the girl. Her turmoil is the most compelling and excrutiating element of the story - I just wanted to grab her and tell her to call the police! Right now! Ahhhhhhhhhh!

The other fascinating element for me was Ron's point of view. He knows that he finds young girls beautiful, particularly a certain type. He often watches them. But he has himself convinced that this is not sexual, and he views child molesters as complete monsters. He not only convinces Nancy he is protecting Rachel, he convinces himself. He really believes that she is in danger (or is already being molested) and that she is safer with him. His desires are presented as complicated; there was a strong divide between his feelings and his actions. He doesn't want to hurt Rachel, but he keeps her underwear in his pocket. He fantasizes about her kissing him on the lips. He clearly wants to touch her but tells himself that it must be initiated by her - and yet he is still delusional enough to think that he does not have sexual feelings for her. It's strange, but believable. Which makes it all the more disturbing.

The city features prominently as the setting, particularly after Rachel has disappeared and a grid search is underway. It makes the story that much more terrifying to have it set in your own backyard, of course. My god I'm glad I don't have kids. One thing I found kind of interesting was an early mention of suicide by throwing oneself off the Bloor Viaduct. This is the second book I have read for this project that talks about committing suicide in that way. I just find it an interesting touch, because there is a collective subconscious in Toronto that associates that particular structure, at least partially, with suicide. You could always just say "I'm going to throw myself off a bridge", but this character says (mega paraphrase): "I'm going to throw myself off the Bloor Viaduct". It marks it as a Toronto story. Living in Toronto, I would say I'm going to throw myself off a bridge, but if I was back in Fredericton I would probably say I'm going to throw myself off the train bridge. Interesting markers of geographic specificity.

Anyway, to the task at hand. I don't know what to say about this book. I think that based on the skilled writing, the compelling plot and interesting characters, it was very very good. I can only recommend it tentatively though, and if you are at all triggered by themes of pedophilia/child sexual abuse, emotional abuse/coercion, child abduction, etc. then proceed with caution.

That said, I would definitely read Gowdy again because her writing really is terrific.

Four CN Towers out of five. 

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this review of a book by one of my favourite authors. I think Barbara Gowdy is hugely talented. I agree with your assessment of the book - amazingly well written, uncomfortable to read. I like the way Gowdy humanizes all her characters. She is a very daring writer, IMO.