Barbara Gowdy likes to push the boundaries of fiction. Her backlist includes The White Bone, written from the viewpoint of an elephant, and a short story about a female necrophiliac. Her latest novel takes on the emotive subject of child abduction.
Thrillers attract me particularly when they’re packaged in black livery and sinister moths. But I hummed and hawed about reading this for months. It took Gowdy herself to convince me. Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival she explained her ground rules. 1) The child could not be harmed – the book would have been unbearable to write. 2) The abductor could not be a monster – the book would have been uninteresting.
So, reassured by 1) and intrigued by 2) I started what turned into an unputdownable read. There are so many ambiguities, so many shades of grey. Ron, the abductor, is portrayed in three-dimensions, his motivations and his self-denial (both psychologically and sexually) explained. He has convinced himself that he is rescuing Rachel from an abusive landlord and in so doing cannot countenance surrender to his own urges. The great controversy of the novel lies here – Gowdy explains her villain in distinctly human and not entirely unsympathetic terms. It’s a brave move and one which has alienated parts of her readership – particularly males!
Gowdy casts her candid eye on other issues. Rachel, the child, is exceptionally beautiful, sought after by model agencies. This foreshadows the abduction but also raises questions concerning the sexualisation of little girls. She is from a single-parent family, her mother holding down two jobs to afford the best life she can. Necessarily Rachel spends much time alone and it is this that gives her abductor the excuses and the opportunity he seeks. Cue discussion on the lifestyle of single-parent families.
More psychological complexity in the form of the abductor’s girlfriend, Nancy. A woman whose own neediness makes her depend on Ron and sucks her into his warped mindset. Rachel, herself, quickly becomes attached to Nancy and Ron displaying classic signs of Stockholm Syndrome.
While knowing groundrule 1) takes the edge from the tension, it does enable the reader to focus on the moral dilemma. I quite understand reviewers like Joanna Briscoe in the Guardian describing Helpless as “a psychological thriller that leaves the reader feeling decidedly sullied”. I didn’t feel sullied but I did feel icky. In humanising the abductor, Gowdy makes outright condemnation impossible. Does this equate to condoning?
The novel is well crafted, drama and pace tightly controlled. Controversial themes, complex characterisation are handled with skill and much literary finesse. The novel was shortlisted for the 2007 Giller Prize and was recently awarded the 2008 Trillium (English) Novel Book Award.