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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.