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The monster examined

Helpless A Novel Barbara Gowdy Metropolitan Books: 308 pp., $24

March 18, 2007|Sarah Weinman | Sarah Weinman, a New York-based freelance journalist and book critic, writes about crime fiction on her blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind.

BARBARA GOWDY treads territory that would scare away even the most hardened of writers, what with her knack for unearthing the universal within the perverse and finding empathy for those usually deemed repugnant.

A morgue assistant with a particular affinity for the corpses she embalms, a man who rids himself of his extra head, and a herd of elephants are among the weird and off-kilter cast of characters populating Gowdy's five previous novels and a short-story collection, their surface abnormalities giving way to an inner core of humanity. Even the seemingly conventional love story in "The Romantic" (2003) is a mask for more complex ruminations on the nature of physical interaction.

It's not surprising then to find that Gowdy's latest novelistic quest is to humanize what may be the most monstrous of modern bogeymen, the child abductor. Her rationale, the author explained in a recent interview in her native Canada, is simple: "I wanted the reader to understand him, not necessarily feel sympathy for him." Engendering sympathy is easy, with pat explanations about the villain's terrible upbringing, a shattering inciting event or a more recent stressor; understanding requires greater ambiguity on the writer's part and increased intellectual demands placed on the reader.

In "Helpless," Gowdy succeeds in her simple objective: The abductor evokes little sympathy. Understanding the nature of his obsession and why he commits the act he does, however, takes us into uncomfortable territory -- a wise move that allows the author to examine the transformative, often disfiguring effects of what falls under the category of love.

The bare bones of Gowdy's plot can be found in any number of prosaic suspense thrillers: A beautiful girl, raised by a struggling single mother in less-than-ideal conditions, is being stalked by an older man. When he has the opportunity, he abducts her and holds her captive in a dank, dark basement. The child's anguish over her captivity could have played center stage, or the author could have created a private detective who fights demons, the bottle and tight-lipped family members to discover the truth, or a moody, loner homicide detective who investigates with painstaking detail until he and the abyss become inexorably linked.

Fortunately, Gowdy chose none of these scenarios. Although she maintains a palpable level of tension and the dangling carrot of whether the child will live or die, she offers a more nuanced psychological focus on a quartet whose relations to one another are both oddly distant and profoundly intimate. The child, the abductor, his girlfriend and the girl's mother, each of whom occupies the dual role of archetype and fully realized character, take turns embodying different aspects of the book's title and the obsession it implies. There are incidental players -- concerned companions, neighbors and a sketchily drawn Toronto neighborhood -- but "Helpless" relies on the shifting dance among these four to embody its larger concerns.

Nine-year-old Rachel can't help her combination of exquisite looks and a "social canniness beyond her years," which seems to incite lust in every man she meets. Her mother, Celia, can't help being a single parent, her economic situation (which requires her to work in a video store and a piano bar) and her inability to love anyone as completely as she does her daughter.

Nancy can't help her complicity in Rachel's abduction that springs from her decision to stay with a man who doesn't deserve her love and her inability to choose a course that would threaten her own sense of security, which she has carefully constructed in the wake of a damaged past.

Finally there is Ron, who can't seem to help his increasingly criminal behavior. He is as aware of right and wrong as he is self-deluding about his true intentions toward the child. His condemnation of Celia for leaving "a girl as beautiful as Rachel ... alone with a man under the age of eighty" later segues into the realization that like "every other man in her life, he's going to take advantage of her."

Rachel's lovely physical appearance (blond hair, mixed race, large eyes) is a crucial narrative point, but paradoxically it makes her character the most problematic. Though Gowdy wisely makes Rachel wholly used to being the center of attention -- and as a result somewhat spoiled and petulant -- the girl's attractiveness is generic, lacking a unique spark. Had Rachel been beautiful only in Ron's eyes, or just to him and Celia, then her abduction would resonate more and Gowdy's objective of understanding the child abductor would be better accomplished. Descriptions of loveliness go only so far; the lack of accompanying sensory qualities keeps Rachel distant from the more vibrant, emotionally powerful members of this quartet.

Although that is a notable narrative flaw, it does not detract from the thrust of the novel's argument that the real nightmare is not the worst possible outcome but the totality of possible outcomes. "The worst-case scenario is just as possible as the best-case. There are a thousand possible explanations, tens of thousands of possible suspects. The possibilities of doing the wrong thing, thinking the wrong thought, you can't even measure," Celia thinks as she waits for more missing-person fliers to distribute in the search for her daughter.

Rachel's abduction is resolved in a definitive manner, but Gowdy smartly leaves what happens afterward open to question. A happy ending for some is a devastating denouement for others. And in exploring the common thread of hesitation and passivity among the cast of characters, the author shows in "Helpless" that no matter how much we may hope that we would take decisive action in a similar situation, the painful truth is that we seldom do. *

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