What do you think of the Giller shortlist? Were there any surprises? Do you have any predictions?
Barbara Gowdy's "Helpless" (HarperCollins, Canada) is another book that didn't make it to short list. I am halfway through it and it's gripping, suspenseful, haunting, in short, an excellent, but uncomfortable read.
In a nutshell...Ron, vacuum repairman, has a passion for little girls. So when he spies beautiful nine-year-old Rachel, outside her school, he follows her meaning to take her home to his basement which he has lovingly converted into a place for her replete with Disney videos and Barbie dolls. He doesn't see himself as a kidnapper or an abductor but as a rescuer (somewhere in his confused mind he believes Rachel's mother is exploiting her by making her sing in bars where she (Rachel's mother plays the piano). He also believes that that the family’s kind gay landlord is a child molester.
The story is told from multiple perspectives and what emerges is a man who is aware of his lust for children but who hesitates to cross the line. Barbara Gowdy sees Ron as being similar to Alice in Wonderland writer Lewis Carroll, who enjoyed taking photographs of naked girls. She told CBC.ca, “Ron falls madly in love with little girls but he doesn’t want to harm them, which is unusual. It happens, but it’s unusual…." As a result the reader comes away with a rather sympathetic view of Ron which is a real achievement on Gowdy's part because I can't think of anyone the world hates more than a child abductor and yet she completely succeeds in humanizing him.
As I said in the beginning, I am only halfway through it, the tension is so heavy, I get the impression Ron will not harm Rachel, but I don't know for sure, Gowdy is sure keeping me guessing. The novel has had a mixed reception, its themes of obsessive love, the sexualization of young girls and an abductor who is portrayed as a victim rather than a villian have made readers either love or hate the novel and in turn, love or hate Gowdy.
Guardian (UK) had this to say:
Society would barely countenance a male author writing like this: he would run the risk of being labelled a crazed pervert. This leap of the imagination by a female writer may be more tolerable; but though it's courageous, and though Ron's awareness of the "line" not to be crossed remains, there are passages that slip into the gratuitously disturbing. Being propelled through this skilful but unpleasant page-turner leaves the reader with a distinct feeling of being stalked.
And our very own Toronto Star:
This is a novel not a sermon. It is a genuinely suspenseful read, gripping to the last page. Without any betrayal of ending, it can also be said that the novel does not leave the reader in darkness, and the general effect is not depressing.
The author's sympathy is a generous one – not assumed for any shock effect of making a pedophile kidnapper more of a human being than a monster – and that sympathy communicates itself in various grace notes throughout.