Select one of the keywords
Helpless    by Barbara Gowdy order for
by Barbara Gowdy
Order:  USA  Can
Metropolitan, 2007 (2007)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Nine-year-old Rachel lives with her loving single mother, Celia Fox, who works at two jobs to keep their heads above water. Celia's fortunate in having found a very kind landlord, gay Mika, a private school science teacher who's given them a low rent apartment, and helps in many other ways. Rachel, born to Celia from a transitory relationship with a black man who's long gone from her life, is a very lovely little girl, attracting attention wherever she goes.

One of the many people who have noticed Rachel is oddball appliance repairman Ron Clarkson. Obsessed with the little girl, he stalks her and convinces himself that Celia is an unfit mother who endangers Rachel by taking her along on her evening jazz and blues performance gig at a motel. Seeing Mika babysitting Rachel, Ron also concludes that the child is at risk from the landlord. The repairman has a very conflicted and (after severe childhood abuse) needy girlfriend Nancy, rather reminiscent of the seedy Nancy in Oliver Twist.

We see Ron deceive himself into believing that Rachel needs rescue, and that what he feels for her - based on experiences revealed in his own childhood - is fatherly. In 'a form of worship', he makes a basement room for a little girl, stocked with a canopy bed, stuffed animals, dollhouse and movies - and dreams of installing Rachel there. His compulsions build until opportunity knocks. Babysitting Rachel one stormy night when there's a power outage, Mika falls and hits his head. Rachel runs outside seeking help. A helpless Ron gives in to his overriding impulse.

Gowdy does an excellent job of portraying the helpless mother's anguish, the city-wide search, and Nancy's continuing shock and confusion after Ron enlists her help. She buys in to her boyfriend's story - somewhat - but can't stop the questions that arise. At first, Ron stays away from the little girl in his basement, sending Nancy to provide meals and reassurance, but gradually, his compulsions override his intent to stay away. The reader wonders how all of this will end, finding - along with Celia - it hard to believe it will end well.

This compelling story made me recall real life child abductions in Toronto (where this tale is set) that had tragic endings. Though I found its conclusion rather unlikely, Helpless - with its intriguing psychological studies of varied personalities - carried me along and stayed with me.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Contemporary books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews