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March 12, 2007

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy

Barbara Gowdy’s Helpless shifts between a variety of points of view: Rachel, an uncommonly beautiful young girl who has been abducted; her mother Celia, desperate with worry; Ron, the appliance repairman conscious of his unhealthy urges, who is holding Rachel captive in his basement; and Ron’s girlfriend, Nancy, who struggles between her feelings for Ron and her own attachment to Rachel. These various points of view– each one convincing in its own right– enhance the structure of this suspenseful but relatively straightforward narrative, and the result is a multi-dimensional examination of empathy, understanding, and love.

Christie Blatchford is thanked by Gowdy in her acknowledgements, and I imagine her counsel helped to lend this book its verisimilitude– she’s written about so many of these missing children cases in her columns over the years. The near-journalistic quality of Gowdy’s depiction of the police investigation is one of the most compelling parts of this book.

Empathy is essential to the process of tracking down missing children, as investigators must try to get inside an abductor’s heads to know where the crime might go. Such attempts at understanding are also enacted by Celia, who herself suffers with being empathized with by those who really cannot possibly understand what she is going through (the absolute impossibility of true empathy, dealt with also in Afterwards). Gowdy portrays the resistance of empathy as well; speaking to a man who actually does understand her situation, Celia is “instantly on her guard. She doesn’t want her feelings to be feelings he knows. His child died.” Similarly, Nancy also struggles with and against her understanding of Ron’s intentions with Rachel, and links the girl’s plight with trauma from her own past.

These concurrent themes of empathy and the resistance of help the reader to negotiate their understanding of Ron, who, as Gowdy explains in this CBC interview isn’t likeable, but is real– as in complex, interesting and human. His motivation for the abduction is love, which is twisted where it lies, but stems from a long-ago place more understandable. And though this understanding verges on discomforting at times, Gowdy’s is a fascinating portrayal of an often-simplified type of character– also the case with Celia and Nancy, who are fleshed out well beyond the stock figures of “single mom” or “former addict”. Her child’s voice for Rachel is also very convincing.

Wonderfully located in a readable Toronto and secure of its time, Helpless considers the sxualization of young girls, the make-up of the modern family, maternal devotion, and rites of childhood. The tension present from the very start is upheld and deftly orchestrated by Gowdy throughout, and makes for a rich and readable book.

Note: Heather Mallick cites this novel in her latest column .

2 thoughts on “Helpless by Barbara Gowdy”

  1. Steven W. Beattie says:

    I’ve loved Gowdy’s work since I read We So Seldom Look On Love years ago. She walks that razor’s edge between repulsion and empathy; she can find humanity in the most unsympathetic characters. I’m really looking forward to the new novel. Thanks for the review.

  2. hip_ragdoll says:

    What a lovely review — and I think your thoughts are so much more coherent and well put together than my own!

    I too enjoyed the novel.

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