I'll be interviewing Gowdy as part of the Harbourfont REading Series Wednesday (March 7). See Readings for details. Rating: NNNN
Barbara Gowdy takes empathy to the max in her deeply unsettling new novel, Helpless. She's previously asked us to understand a necrophile and imagine the life of an elephant. Here, she takes us inside the head of a developing pedophile.
Ron's hot for Rachel, the beautiful blond nine-year-old daughter of single mom Celia. Convincing himself that the child is in danger (she sits on landlord Mika's lap, and her mom takes her along when she sings in bars), Ron kidnaps Rachel and hides her in his basement.
The tension is unbearable we really do not know what's going to happen. But Gowdy is not a sadist. She's interested more in the psyches of her characters than in torturing her readers.
We follow Ron as he talks himself into believing he's rescuing his victim and then tries everything he can not to rape her. Then, in a crucial sequence, Rachel gets a chance to escape and doesn't take it. When Ron snatches her up and takes her back inside the house, somehow, in the mindfuck known as Stockholm Syndrome, he becomes her hero.
Also fascinating is Nancy, Ron's girlfriend and accomplice. Though she loves Ron and knows he's doing something terribly wrong, she can't bring herself to turn him in. This is the kind of woman routinely demonized by a very judgmental public, but Gowdy finds a way to let us understand her.
Obviously, Gowdy's parked her humour far away from this project, but she still has her eye for the devastating, sometimes ironic detail: Celia worrying about what she owes strangers who do nice things for her after the kidnapping, Ron barely able to get his fist through the leg hole of the pair of Rachel's underwear he's snatched.