Helpless by Barbara Gowdy (Harper Collins 2007)
Barbara Gowdy rarely disappoints. Her novels appear on bestseller lists around the world, and she no doubt has a loyal fan base. Helpless, Gowdy’s sixth book, contains everything her readers have come to expect from her work – intelligence, sympathy, perception, and solid writing.
Helpless details the abduction of Rachel, the nine-year-old daughter of Celia Fox. The young girl – considered an uncommon beauty by everyone that meets her – becomes the object of one man’s dark obsession, which in many ways is simply a grosser extension of the way the rest of the male world has come to regard her. Rachel and her mother, for instance, are stopped in the street one afternoon, out-of-the-blue, by a modelling agent promising riches.
The abduction by Ron, a pedophile in denial, occurs during a massive city-wide power outage, understandably plunging the lives of those around the girl into chaos. The novel balances the story of Rachel and her captors with that of Celia, her frantic mother. There is a brief flirtation with the Stockholm Syndrome, and an uncomfortable rapprochement between Rachel and Ron.
The strength of this novel is clearly in the character of Ron, and to a lesser extent, Jenny – Ron’s mislead and frantic accomplice. The rest of the novel’s myriad contributors pale in comparison. Even Celia, the novel’s supposed protagonist appears two-dimensional in Ron’s shadow. Rather than portray him as a dark unknown entity, Gowdy skirts the dangerous territory of creating sympathy – if not acceptance – for a man struggling with his own monstrous desires, not wishing to do harm but deluding himself and those closest to him.
That being said, Helpless smolders with anticipation, but never truly ignites. It dallies with the dark undercurrents of pedophilia but pulls away to safety before anyone gets burned. The plot and language are competent but without risk. The character of Ron is fascinating in his sickness, but it is difficult to believe that Rachel’s life and welfare are ever indeed at risk.
Helpless offers its readers a glimpse of possible evil, but then allows them to retreat, and ultimately sleep soundly.