A blog by Nikki Dudley about the gaps in everyday life...


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Helpless- Barbara Gowdy (book group for March)

Rating: ** and a half stars.

So Helpless by Barbara Gowdy... Where to start? It's a novel that was hotly contested when read out on Radio 4 some time ago and from reading the premise I could see why. Hard to sum up but Helpless it is basically a novel with several narrators, one of whom is a single mother, Celia, struggling to cope with bringing up her young daughter; another is her nine-year-old daughter, Rachael; another is a man, Ron, who becomes infatuated with Rachael; and another is Ron's partner, Nancy. There are also other narrators who pop up now and again, namely Celia and Rachael's landlord, Mika. The numerous narrators do not seem to have any kind of structure, in terms of when they show up, which seems to be a flaw of the entire novel. There is a lack of conviction throughout in many ways, which I shall expand on slightly later...

I found this an uncomfortable read at first. Celia and Rachael were focussed on in terms of Celia's struggle to bring up Rachael as a single mother and her multiple jobs. Luckily for them, Mika barely takes any money from them for letting them live in his house. Mika is apparently a gay sesitive man, who just happens to be very generous. Sadly, he isn't developed very much. Rachael is fascinated with finding her biological father- apparently a black architect from New York. This means that every time she meets someone black, she asks if they're from New York, and if they are, she asks if they know her father. This sub-plot again unfortunately goes nowhere...

Ron enters the story. He sees Rachael singing at her mother's club (which is one of her part-time jobs) and starts watching her. He believes she is being mistreated, talking himself into the fact that Mika is a paedophile, although in reality, the paedophile is actually him. We meet his girlfriend, Nancy; an ex-drug addict who still smokes cannabis. She seems utterly devoted to Ron at first but these feelings seem easily overturned. She has no inkling of Ron's illness, which we see developed through flashbacks from the past of after his mother's death when his father invited a woman and her child to stay with them. As a teenager, Ron became attracted to this younger child. Ron remembers this girl forever and when he sees Rachael for the first time, his feelings are transferred onto her.

What was uncomfortable about the read was the suggestion. This may be the main thing that Gowdy did well. Ron's attraction to Rachael was disturbing as he constantly seemed to want to impress her and entice her, as though she were a potential mate, rather than a nine-year-old child. He takes her away from her mother and Mika, locks her up, tries to provide her with what he thinks she wants and expects that in time, she will grow to love him. He imagines that eventually she will sit on his lap, perhaps kiss him on the lips etc... I think what disturbed me was the thought process that perhaps he could essentially 'woo' a child into doing inappropriate things with him and treat this as normal. It would almost be less disturbing if he merely acted out his paedophelia, rather than expect a child to somehow fall in love with him.

What was irritating about this novel was some of the plot choices and strange twists in the plot that came out of nowhere, most notably they mention an idea about 'slave drivers' who wanted to collect children like Rachael and kidnap them to Africa. This is brought up, most ironically, when she is locked up at Ron's house. Rachel confronts someone she thinks is one and Ron apparently 'saves' her. After this, she starts to feel affection for him, wanting him to join in with activities and wanting him around. Nancy begins to feel threatened by this (she has aided Rachael beforehand, i.e.: letting Celia know that Rachael is still alive). I found Rachael's sudden intense fear and change of heart, re: Ron, very unbelievable. She has hated him, quite rightly, as he has kidnapped her and he makes her feel frightened. And suddenly, she decides that he's her hero?

All of the characters and plot seemed half developed. I wanted it to change but I did feel unconvinced by a lot of it at the end. Mika- what are his motives and why isn't he seen as a proper suspect in the investigation? Ron- is he an evil paedophile or is he just someone who wants to help Rachael, combined with misplaced sexual feelings? Nancy- does she realise Ron is paedophile or is she blinded by love? Rachael- is she an intelligent and confident young girl who loves her mother or is she a completely naive and easily persuaded little girl? If Gowdy had made just one of these decisions, I might've been convinced by this book. But alas, I felt like I had read an entire novel of half-thoughts, half-ideas and half-developed characters. I wanted to care, I really did... I'm not a horrible person, I just didn't feel like I had a significant connection with any of the characters.

Generally, my book group agreed with this verdict. We all read it as quickly as possible, not out of pleasure, but because we wanted to read something else rather than this uncomfortable, awkward novel. Perhaps this is what Gowdy intended, so perhaps she was successful in her aims. I am just judging this as an average reader and that's all I can do!

Monday, 15 March 2010

streetcake issue 10 now live!

Check out the latest issue of streetcake, the magazine for innovative, visual and experimental writing...


Writers this issue include: Ashley Bovan, Kerri Buley, Trini Decombe, Nikki Dudley, Juli Jana and Tony Rickaby.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Launch party for Ellipsis

Hello all,

here's the launch info. Let me know if you want to pop along...

Sparkling Books and Nikki Dudley invite you to the launch of Nikki’s debut novel, Ellipsis.
Date: Sat 15th May
Time: 6.45-8.45pm
Venue: Café, Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London, NW3 6DG
Nearest stations: Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, Finchley Road and Frognal.
Parking at O2 centre.
Please RSVP via this link: http://sparklingbooks.ning.com/events/launch-of-ellipsis or simply email: nikkisdudley@hotmail.co.uk and let me know if you wish to bring a guest/guests.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

My latest book group read...

Here's a review by The Guardian on my latest book group book. I am currently finishing the novel and finding myself agreeing with the majority of this review. My own thoughts to follow...


by Barbara Gowdy

The tragic case of Madeleine McCann can only invest a novel about child abduction with a freshly vivid sense of horror. For all its page-turning professionalism, Helpless, a tautly plotted but unnerving psychological thriller that leaves the reader feeling decidedly sullied, is not an easy read.

The novel has had a mixed reception in the US and in Gowdy's native Canada, where critics are either discomfited or admire this daring attempt to imbue the psyche of a child abductor with shades of grey. Known for inhabiting the minds of unorthodox protagonists - a herd of elephants and a female necrophiliac have previously starred - Gowdy has further tested limits in her exploration of the vulnerability of a child-stalking kidnapper.

Rachel Fox, a preternaturally beautiful nine-year-old, is being brought up in shabby but loving poverty by her single mother, Celia. Rachel attracts attention wherever she goes: innocent admirers, model scouts and paedophiles alike appear to turn their gaze towards this girl. Celia is forced to take evening work in a piano bar where she occasionally allows Rachel to join her performance, while their beloved gay landlord Mika acts as a childminding substitute for the father Rachel has never known but longs to meet.

In the meantime, we are introduced to the unpleasantly nerdy Ron, small appliances repairman and beer-bellied loner, who cruises the streets of Toronto eyeing up young girls. One day he spots Rachel. "Yes, he said to himself, something happened. I fell in love. Only as he thought it did he realise it was true. A ripple of terror went through him ... he began to see himself for what he was: a man gearing up for suffering."

The lulling switch of focus between Ron and Rachel in Gowdy's controlled, rhythmic prose creates a slow-burning tension and plot progression that is persuasive and entirely sinister. Ron begins to convert the basement of his home into a girl's bedroom, battles his inner demons yet awaits his chance while promising his baby-hungry girlfriend that they will adopt a child. Opportunity arrives when a phone and electricity blackout hits the city, causing Rachel to run out for help, straight into the arms of the waiting Ron. He imprisons her in the Barbie-strewn basement, complete with colonial style doll's house and window bars (a ready-made cinematic feature if ever there was one), persuades his girlfriend that he has saved the child from a molesting landlord, and hides out as the alarm is raised. In his warped mental world, he presents the kidnap as a rescue.

Events follow a by now horribly familiar pattern of police procedure and media hysteria: forensic teams arrive, DNA samples and hard drives are taken, news conferences and road blocks are set up, and the story soon dominates the airwaves. While Celia and Rachel descend into their own versions of hell and signs of Stockholm syndrome stir, Ron swings between justification, doubt and desire, and keeps Rachel's knickers in his pocket. With references to "her quivering little form", "her thin brown arms, the insect-like hinge of her elbows, her prancing step", the prose takes on a nightmarish hue. Tying her up to kidnap her is, according to Ron, "like taping a doll".

Society would barely countenance a male author writing like this: he would run the risk of being labelled a crazed pervert. This leap of the imagination by a female writer may be more tolerable; but though it's courageous, and though Ron's awareness of the "line" not to be crossed remains, there are passages that slip into the gratuitously disturbing.

Like Humbert Humbert and his "initial girl-child", the motherless Ron had fallen disastrously for his eight-year-old stepsister in boyhood. By airing the roots of his predilections, Gowdy, like so many post-Freudian authors before her, insists on a psychologically driven series of actions that are not always as subtle as they're meant to be to a readership thoroughly conversant with notions of youthful trauma and arrested development. Although never specifically ordered to sympathise with the "hostile and chubby" Ron, we are clearly meant to understand him to some degree, yet he remains both physically and morally repugnant.

The novel throws up many issues. Such dubious territory, for example, should arguably not be navigated in what is essentially entertainment. But, on the other hand, the prose masterpiece that is Lolita would never have been written without considerable boundary-breaking. Helpless, however, is more reminiscent of Stephen King than of Nabokov. There's a strange sense here that Gowdy has both held back and stepped too far. Being propelled through this skilful but unpleasant page-turner leaves the reader with a distinct feeling of being stalked.


Search This Blog