political fiction can put a writer in a lose/lose situation. You need dynamite characters in a genre that's marked by obvious conflicts between good guys and bad guys. And you can't really have them doing too much, because the historical facts tend to subvert the narrative's surprise factor.Even with that burden, Maggie Helwig's Where She Was Standing, a study of political burnout, is a winner.
It's 1990. Expat Rachel works with a cadre of other activists to support East Timorese dissenters. Operating out of a tiny office in London, England, Rachel is trying to get information on a massacre of protestors -- including, possibly, a Canadian art student -- by the Indonesian military.
It's all getting to her, and her doctor boyfriend Edward, who works in a street clinic, can't comfort her, something that distresses him more and more as she pulls farther and farther away.
What works here is Helwig's ability to convey the daily grind of activist life, the slow wearing down of an individual's resistence and ability to absorb painful information. Then there are the risks -- and you can be taking big ones just by giving medical care to homeless people in your own city.
Once Helwig moves to the world's hot spots, the effect is not as strong. Scenes in an East Timorese torture chamber don't shed new light on the trauma, and others evoking a mother's outrage at the death of her daughter just miss.
But this is an excellent debut novel written in sparse and powerful prose. And better still, it could only have come from a Canadian writer.
WHERE SHE WAS STANDING by Maggie Helwig (ECW), 271 pages, $19.95 paper. Rating: NNN