Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Giller Prize 2007 (Short List) and Barbara Gowdy's "Helpless"

The Giller Prize Jury has spoken...the 5 books on the 2007 Giller Prize shortlist are:

Elizabeth Hay for her novel Late Nights on Air, McClelland & Stewart

Michael Ondaatje for his novel Divisadero, McClelland & Stewart

Daniel Poliquin for his novel A Secret Between Us, trans. Donald Winkler, Douglas & McIntyre

M.G. Vassanji for his novel The Assassin’s Song, Doubleday Canada

Alissa York for her novel Effigy, Random House Canada

I was so surprised that Lawrence Hill's "Book of Negroes" did not make it to the shortlist. It seemed to be the very kind of book that would appeal to the judges of a prize like this. I also missed seeing Richard Wright's "October". Ofcourse, the question on everybody's mind is, will Vassanji win his third Giller for "The Assassin's Song"?

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, “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.


FH said...

Great books for short list, got to find them in the library.
Just bought a book "River of Gods", a science fiction by Ian McDonald, a fun novel to read which is about Aug.15t, 2047!!:)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Asha!

Yeah, the shortlist contains the usual culprits...I would recommend picking up 'The Assassin's Song" if your library has it.

"River of Gods" sure sounds intriguing, you will have to tell me how you liked it.

karmic said...

Hi Lotus, Thank you for telling us about the Giller shortlist. Unfortunately I have not read any of them and so my opinions may not mean much. But reading thru the synopses of these fine books the honor seems well deserved indeed. I truly hope that Vassanji wins his third Giller, I think the subject of the book, the breath of it and that it deals with civilizations in tumult in it seem more relevant today than ever. Not to forget your excellent review about it adds to my opinion.

Do you have a favorite?

I am actually not surprised that "Helpless" did not make it. The subject matter on most days is taboo, even though a woman writing about it may take the edge of the visceral reaction that most readers may have to it. I do agree with the Guardian review that this book was likely possible only because a woman wrote it.

Also being “gripping, suspenseful, haunting, in short, an excellent, but uncomfortable read." may not have been enough to help this book make the shortlist. I think the subject matter sunk this book and explains the mixed reception.

Did the consideration about the themes of this book enter the mind of the 3 judges? I would love to know but I doubt anyone ever will.

I surely think it is very brave of you to read this. And I can see how the author might make Ron a sympathetic character, but the kind of thinking as personified by Ron is not entirely new for people who try to justify their almost criminal actions under the rubric of being a rescuer of a child. Did you think Ron's fantasies served to be a mere cover for his condition? Also the "gay landlord who may be a child molester" is yet another cliché that is sadly too real. A lot of opposition to gay couples adopting children comes from this belief.

I would be very curious to know if Gowdy's character was inspired by someone in real life or solely her creation. Ron might be more of interest from a clinical psychiatrist's perspective. That line that he does not cross is very fuzzy to begin with. Was Gowdy asked why she felt the need to humanize Ron while subscribing to a cliché about gays? Was there intent beyond the humanizing? I also would love to know how it ends.

May I ask you what drew you to this book? Was it the subject matter and the use of fiction to try to peek in to a very dark corner of the human mind?

I commend you for reading such a thought provoking and disturbing book, I would not be able to read this unless it was a clinical case study. And at the risk of sounding repetitive I have to say you truly have very eclectic reading tastes.

Thank you as always for a wonderful post.

Beenzzz said...

I'm very curious about "The Assassin's Song." I think I will add that on my list too! I've finally gotten back into reading again. It's about time, huh? :) I'm currently reading "Curry: Cook and Conquerers." I really like it so far.
Thank you for adding my photo blog to your blogroll as well!!!! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

You're quite welcome! The Giller Prize is huge in the Canadian literary world so ofcourse I was very excited when the shortlist was announced.

I would also like to see Vassanji win his third Giller (he is a brilliant writer) but I don't know if he will. Maybe they'll want to give it to someone else, Elizabeth Hay perhaps?

Do I have a favorite? Yes, it's Vassanji (no prizes for guessing, huh?) :)

Yes, I, too, thought "Helpless" may not have made it because of its controversial content, but honestly, I don't know, and as you pointed out, it's unlikely we will ever find out. Having said that however, it did make it to the long list which means the jury liked it well enough for it to have beaten so many other books to get to that prestigious place.

You make some very good points as usual, Sanjay. Like I said I am only halfway through the book and my opinions are still in the process of being formed. I find Ron and Rachel make great character studies. I am not sure if Gowdy deliberately intends for the reader to come away sympathizing with Ron, (she probably sought that we atleast understand him,) but because she makes him a vulnerable figure, you come away feeling that he is not a monster, but a man that needs help. I hasten to add here, just because one senses he is vulnerable his actions are no less revulsive. Also, like I said in my post, he thinks he is rescuing Rachel from the other adults in her life who want to hurt her...he is so obviously deranged

I think Ron and the other characters are Gowdy's creations. She is known for inhabiting the minds of some very unusual creatures. In her novel "White Bone" she inhabited the minds of elephants and in another book (I forget the title) she gives us a protagonist who is a necrophiliac. She's always pushing boundaries and coupled with her admirable writing most of her books have done really well.

Macleans' editor Kenneth White grilled Gowdy about "Helpless", I think you will find most of the answers to your questions here:

What drew me to the book? Well, for starters I wanted to read some Giller-nominated books. I read and enjoyed Vassanji's "Assassin's Song" , I struggled with Ondjaate's "Divisadero" and then gave up, my third choice was Barbara Gowdy because I had heard about her writing and I was very keen to sample it.

Thank you for engaging me in a conversation about the book Sanjay...really appreciate you sharing all your thoughts here. Please continue do so.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Beenzzz!

So happy to know you're reading again!

"Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors" is a really nice book. What I tried to do with it was to read a chapter and then follow it up with the dish...the Vindaloo, the chicken tikka etc. Have you tried any of the recipes yet?

Parth said...

Now I know about one more literary prize thanks to you :-) Must confess I haven't read any of these books, but your reviews are a guiding light as always.

J said...

It'll take me two or three lifetimes to read all the books you've mentioned in your blog! But I'll refer to your reviews as a guide!! :)

Anonymous said...

No Surprises for me in the "Giller". I too would like to see Vassanji win his third Giller, but I have my doubts. Although I have only read reviews of Elizabeth Hay's "Late Night's On Air" I have a feeling this is the winner.

I am not at all surprised that "Helpless" did not make the final cut. I think it a too sensitive subject to be given a prestigious award.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Parth and Jyo

I want to thank you for always stopping by to leave me a comment even when some of the posts are too bookish to be exciting...really appreciate it. And Jyo, I'd be happy for this blog to serve as a book suggestion guide for you and to anyone else that might want to use it that way.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sylvia!

Yes, deserving as he is, it is highly unlikely that Vassanji will win another Giller this time. According to The Globe Michael Ondaatje is the front runner and Elizabeth Hay has good odds. We'll have to wait and see I suppose :)

Melody said...

Great list! Vassanji's Assassin's Song sounds interesting to me, I might have to check it out.

As for Barbara Gowdy's Helpless, I almost picked this up during my last bookshopping trip, but then I had several books on hand so I gave it a miss. I'll definitely add this to my 'to-buy' list. Thanks for the great review!

karmic said...

Lotus, Thank you for your response. I do hope Vassanji wins. :) They announced the finalists for the Nattional Book Awards. The NPR link is here.

Re:Helpless. Thank you for the link to the Macleans site, that link is broken but I could find the article using the search feature. It is an interesting interview, and the author does come across as a bit of an agent provocateur, if I may say so although she makes some interesting points too. I don't think anyone is disputing that predators need clinical treatment and will likely never be cured. She does fudge the line a bit between what makes a person a monster versus not, the comparisons that she uses at times in the interview are rather disingenuous (comparing her own feelings for men and women (who are adults) and not acting on them versus what Ron feels for a minor and not acting upon it. He does in a way though by kidnapping her by convincing himself that she is in danger. I assume Barbara did not kidnap any of the men./women she had feelings for?).

Also from what you said she clearly loves pushing the envelope, is she really doing this to say these people need treatment? If she is then there are probably better ways to make that point, but I suppose she is free to advocate as that is her right expressed via her fiction.

I would love to know what you think about the characters by the end of the book.

Thank you for your thoughts, I enjoyed reading them as always.

Bookfool said...

I love it that you post these lists - I never would have known the results, otherwise. So, I'm rooting for Ondaatje, just because I love his writing.

srijithunni said...

Such a lot of books, i cam e to know of today..! This book by Barbara sounds a bit scary to me..! But like you say there might be good intentions ultimately. ! Thanks to you, I can know more about the latest books..!

Have Fun, Take Care and God Bless.!

With Best Regards,

Anonymous said...

hmmm... am curious to check out "the assassin's song"

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Melody!

"Helpless" has me in its grip for sure! If you do get around to reading either "Assassin's Song" or the Gowdy one, let me know!

@Srijith ~ You're welcome! I'm glad you're finding this blog useful. Thank you for the visit.

@DJ ~ I think you will like "Assassin's Song"

Lotus Reads said...

@Bookfool~ Hello!!! Yes, there are so many book prizes these days it has one's head spinning doesn't it? I think the list for the National Book Awards came out yesterday and today they will be naming the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The one I'm most excited about is the "Asian Man Booker Prize" many authors that I have never heard of!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay

THanks so much for sending me that link to the National Book Award list. I'm afraid I don't recognize too many of the authors on the list with the exception of Edwidge Danticat, Sherman Alexie, Christopher Hitchens and Denis Johnson. I would like to read Danticat's "Brother I am Dying", I am planning on ordering it today.

Yes that was a fascinating interview with Barbara Gowdy, wasn't it? She really does push the envelope and for no reason other than to stir the pot. But if she can get people to talk about provocative issues in a productive way then I would say she is successful at affecting change. Her book launch ran into serious problems in the UK because it just happened to coincide with the case of the little English/Irish girl Madeleine who was abducted in Portugal recently.

I will be sure to let you know more when I finish the book.

As always, thank you for writing!

ML said...

The Assassin's Song is going on my list of books to read.

Lotus, you read the most fascinating books! My list of TBR is HUGE!

starry said...

Lotus thank you so much for posting all these book selections, some of which I have not heard of, I would love to read "the assasins song.

bint battuta said...

You are a Rockin' Girl Blogger!

J said...

Hi Lotus,

I had never heard of Helpless before, and then someone commented on my blog about it today, because of the subject matter of my post.

I think it would be a disturbing read, and yet, I think it would be interesting to find some sympathy for a child molester. From what I have read (not much), most molesters HATE themselves for what they do, are tortured by their desires, and often were molested themselves as children. Not that these factors in any way condone the actions, but they give you a glimpse into a tortured mind, and make you glad your doors lock from the inside, you know?

J said...

BTW, did you read or see the film, Little Children? The treatment of the pedophile in that story was somewhat haunting.

Tara said...

Helpless sounds very interesting - and reminds me of a book I read called The Bright Forever which I enjoyed very much despite it's morbid subject matter. Do let us know if you enjoy the rest of it.

Lisa Johnson said...

I don't think I'd read "Helpless." It's a bit too much for me, although it does sound like it's very well written.

Lotus Reads said...

@ml ~ Are you still sewing like crazy? Do you find time to read anymore? I find that I am not reading as much now that I am a member of's like a netflix) I seem to want to spend my evenings watching a movie instead of reading!

@Starry ~ You're welcome. All of these books are so totally Canadian you may not have seen them in your bookstores as yet.

@Bint Battuta ~ Thank you so much! I love the button and will be happy to put it on my blog!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi J

You are so right! We don't always understand the factors that go into the making of a child Ron's case, it was a childhood trauma followed by arrested development that warped his views on love, women etc. Again, not to say that this set of circumstances excuses what he does, but atleast we can arrive at an understanding of why he is what he is today.

Yes, I remember "Little Children" so well. I wish we could view these people as clinically sick people. They would benefit more from treatment than they will from our hate of them. Another movie along those lines is "Woodsman" starring Kevin Bacon. I haven't seen it yet but it comes highly recommended.

Lotus Reads said...

@Tara ~ Hello! I went and read the synopsis of "The Bright Forever" after you mentioned it. It sounds a like a beautiful, but sad and poignant tale. I might want to read it. Thanks for mentioning it here.

@Anali ~ Hi! It is beautifully written. Gowdy does have a way with her characters and're held in this tight grip that you can't escape from!

Les said...

Goodness! Gowdy's book sounds extremely tense and emotional. I've heard great things about her writing, but haven't read anything she's written yet. I have to be honest and say I don't think this is going to wind up on my TBR list. Somehow, just seeing that the character's name is Rachel is enough to put me off. That was our daughter's name and this sounds too disturbing to even begin to associate it with her name. However, I will try to get to one of her others someday soon.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Les!

You're right, this book would not be a good match for you Les. I didn't make the connection with the name earlier but now that I have it's changed the mood for me too. I wish I could recommend a Gowdy book for you to read, but this is my first book. Perhaps some other readers will let us know which was their favorite Gowdy novel?

I do thank you for stopping by and leaving me a comment.

Booklogged said...

I can't comment on any of the books shortlisted for the Giller because I haven't read any of them. From your comments and those of others, it sounds like I need to make room for The Assassin's Song.

Helpless sounds intriguing. How does an author write so well that the reader is sympathetic towards a child abductor? I need to read it just so I can figure out the symbolism of the big house shrunk down to one too small for the cover. Thanks for the great review, Lotus.

Les said...

I'm sorry my comment affected your reading of Helpless, Lotus! I hope it turns out to be a good read for you.

Lotus Reads said...

@booklogged ~ This Fall has been quite phenomenal for books, hasn't it? Such great reads from all the publishing houses, we're being spoiled for choice!

@Les ~ No, please don't worry, I'm done with the book. It was a gripping read but as one of the reviewers put it so aptly, I feel a little sullied after reading it.

Anonymous said...

Lotus, this sounds like a creepy book that I definitely wouldn't want to read! Allusions to child abuse in books like 'The kite Runner' were way too disturbing.

But your review makes the author sound like a great writer.