Helpless is the first book which I have read by Barbara Gowdy, a monthly author who was selected for the book group which I run on Goodreads. Despite the fact that Gowdy is a bestselling author in her native Canada, and has written quite a few books (one of which was selected for the Man Booker longlist!), I had never heard of her before she was selected. Of her work, Helpless – described as ‘a haunting, provocative story of heart-stopping suspense’, and called ‘a thumping thriller’ by The Independent – appealed to me the most, so I elected to read and review it.
Helpless follows a struggling single mother named Celia, who lives in a shabby top-floor apartment in downtown Toronto. She has one daughter, a ‘beautiful’ nine-year-old named Rachel, who is the focus of the novel. Rachel disappears on a hot summer evening during a blackout, taken to the house of a local repairman named Ron, and kept in a purpose-built bedroom in his basement. Although Ron and Rachel have never met, he falsely convinces himself that she is being abused at home, and that she should be his responsibility, rather than her mother’s. Ron’s feelings for Rachel are ‘at once tender, misguided and chillingly possessive.’
Helpless is an uncomfortable book to read almost from the very beginning. In the first chapter, in which thirty seven-year-old Ron is introduced, lurking outside a school, she writes: ‘He waited. Really young girls have never interested him. Neither have girls whose faces and bodies are starting to show their adult contours. His type is skinny, with olive to light brown skin and features that through some fineness of bone structure promise to remain delicate.’ He takes this journey to a local school around once a week, sitting in his van and watching the young girls who pass him. On this occasion, he spies Rachel, and quickly becomes obsessed with her. He begins to follow her everywhere. Gowdy writes: ‘Everything about her thrilled him: her thin brown arms, the insectlike hinge of her elbows, her prancing step, the shapely bulb of her head, her small square shoulders bearing the burden of her backpack…’.
Gowdy appears to be hyper-aware of how both a mother and daughter in this situation would feel. She writes the following when the police have become involved in the case: ‘Celia’s dread amplifies. She doesn’t really think that Rachel is out in the open, but she doesn’t rule out the possibility, either. Not knowing where she is turns every place, every house and garage and abandoned store, every trunk of every car and now every ditch and field, into a place she might be.’
The novel provides quite an involved character study of Celia. Regardless of the depth which Gowdy went into, and the exploration of her past – her unplanned pregnancy at the age of twenty-one, and her mother’s death occurring just before Rachel was born – however, did not quite turn Celia into a believable protagonist. Rather, she remained flat, and had very little agency. I did not warm to Rachel either, who again felt two-dimensional. The only character who came across as vaguely realistic was Ron. His girlfriend, Nancy, serves a purpose in the storyline, protecting Ron from those who suspect him and the like, but I found her quite an irritating character.
The similarities which Jane Shilling in the Sunday Telegraph draws between Helpless and John Fowles’ The Collector were, I felt, relatively unfounded. Yes, there are similarities in terms of the plot, but I found Helpless far less chilling and engaging. The novel reminded me rather of Lolita in the feelings of discomfort which it produced in me, and the disgust which I felt towards its main male protagonist. I was also reminded of Beth Gutcheon’s Still Missing, told in quite plain prose, which deals with the disappearance of a young boy, and his mother’s reactions.
The prose style of Helpless surprised me; it was largely nondescript and matter-of-fact, and I was not blown away by any of Gowdy’s descriptions or scene-building. However, what did work well was the present tense which Gowdy employed; it enabled the novel to have an immediacy, an urgency. There was a good level of pace, and a nice rhythm to the novel’s structure. The storyline did not seem quite consistent, though, and I wasn’t satisfied with the book’s ending, as it seemed to finish rather abruptly.
In some ways, Helpless was interesting and absorbing, but I did find that it became bogged down with detail and drawn out after the first few chapters. It lacked the impact which I would have expected from any book which deals with similar themes. I was not entirely impressed with Helpless, and did not find it particularly satisfying.
After reading quite a few reviews by those familiar with the rest of the author’s work, however, it seems to be her least liked novel. I would definitely like to pick up another book by Gowdy in future, in order to see how it compares. Helpless does not feel like a wholly accomplished work for such a respected author to have written, particularly given that this was her seventh book. Regardless, it does give the reader a lot to consider.