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!