Monday, December 19, 2011

Helpless by Barbara Gowdy (2006)

Barbara Gowdy, (born 25 June 1950) is a Canadian novelist and short story writer, who lives in Toronto.  Gowdy's novel "Falling Angels" (1989) was made into a film of the same name.
I'm not that familiar with Canadian novelists, so I knew nothing about her work when I found a few of her books on the shelf in our library.  "Helpless" caught my attention so I took it home, and it turned out to be one of those books you can't put down until you find out what happens.

The novel is the story of the stalking and kidnapping of nine-year-old Rachel, who lives with her mother, Celia, a struggling pianist, in Toronto.  Ron, an appliance repairman who lives in the neighborhood, becomes obsessed with Rachel, quietly stalking her as she walks home from school and keeping an eye on her while she is at home and on the playground. 

The first few chapters of the book made me think of the way Jodi Picoult writes about similar themes, but it got much darker once the abduction takes place.  The striking thing about this novel is the access we are given to the inner workings and the past of Ron, the kidnapper - it's almost too close for comfort.  In June 2008, the novel was abridged and adapted for BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. This resulted in several listeners complaining that the novel was 'dark', 'disturbing' and had '(frightened) the life out of them'. One listener described it as 'inappropriate for any time of day least of all at bedtime' and another claimed that Gowdy's graphic description made him feel 'physically sick'.  I won't say there were passages that made me physically sick, but a lot of it was definitely disturbing. 

One of the most disturbing aspects of the book was the character of Nancy, Ron's unwilling accomplice, and how someone who is not mentally ill (I suppose) was, due to her life circumstances and current situation, unable to take a decision on a moral issue that seems so obvious and clear cut.  I found myself angry at Nancy, shouting at her in my mind to just get Rachel back to her mother and turn Ron in!  She immediately knew what Ron was doing was wrong, it just seemed to take her forever to put her own self interest aside in order to do something about it.  And even then, it only seemed she took action when it became clear that there wasn't anything in it for her anymore.   Nancy reflects the modern person who won't stop and help someone who needs help, because it might inconvenience them, someone we are all in danger of becoming, in one way or another...


ajh said...

Are you glad you read this? I am thinking I will skip it. Good review.

Amy said...

Andrea - am I glad I read it? Yes, it was good. Not in a warm fuzzy way, though!