GIRLS FALL DOWN by Maggie Helwig (Coach House), 266 pages. $20.95 paper. Rating: NNNNN
Maggie Helwig is attuned to the times.
Her powerful and poetic third novel, Girls Fall Down, riffs on themes of terrorism and disease in the city, and the result is soulful, disturbing and exhilarating at the same time.
Alex is a hospital photographer who’d much rather be taking photos of his favourite spots in the city. He runs into his ex-girlfriend Susie, and they rekindle their rocky relationship.
Both finally reveal the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. She is the twin of a man with debilitating schizophrenia, and he is slowly going blind because of diabetes, which often leaves him just moments away from a full-on hypoglycemic attack.
Throughout the story, girls are inexplicably collapsing from nobody knows what, but people fear the worst kind of epidemic. Graffiti on buildings all over town feature only one word, “fear,” and everyone’s attributing everything to terrorism. The city is in a full panic.
The characters are completely credible. Alex is bitter and sometimes even whiny about Susie. Susie does that push-pull thing with Alex that makes her wholly human.
With pitch-perfect prose, Helwig shows huge compassion and an ability to make Toronto come alive. The city becomes another main character as she expertly guides us through our subways and hospitals, streets and coffee shops.
Strangely, this book is not a bummer. An almost laughably paranoid homeless man has a clue to the whereabouts of Susie’s brother. People reach out to each other in times of deep distress.
If there’s any justice in the world, Girls Fall Down will be a shoo-in for the Toronto Book Award and Coach House will make sure it gets on the Giller jury’s reading list.
Read it now.