Step into my parlour, said the rock spider
Helpless By Barbara Gowdy Little, Brown, 306pp, $ 29.95
AN aching sense of vulnerability bites into every page in Barbara Gowdy’s story of obsession and deviance, and its terrible consequences. This is a world without safety nets, built on a foundation of fear and dark instincts papered over by small acts of kindness and demonstrations of affection. It is also one where the worst and best case scenarios are as possible as each other.
The title says everything. Gowdy’s characters — all of them — are helpless to be other than they are as they create a society that swerves uncertainly between the everyday and the ominous. Even Cabbagetown, Toronto, where they live, is an urban dystopia, a place where nothing is typical. Dollar stores share a wall with four- star restaurants. Along the section of Gerrard Street where Angie’s Nails is, there’s a drug- dealer hangout posing as a donut shop, a West Indian grocery store, a Tamil restaurant, a Chinese herbalist, a cosmetic surgeon’s office advertising Botox injections, and a mysterious, always closed store called Belinda’s, whose grimy window display of dolls, wigs, majorette batons, and stiff, frilly dresses for little girls never changes. Add to this the clever daughter, the single mother, their precarious finances and uncertain history and we have a potent combination, which Gowdy exploits to great effect, setting up the presence of great beauty in nine- year- old Rachel, and the apparently inconsequential appliance- repair van that drives by their apartment on the first page, as the chief dynamic of her novel.
The story opens with Celia Fox scanning the papers a stranger has given her to enrol her daughter in a modelling school. Celia — scatty, endearing and musical, makes ends meet working in a video shop during the week; on Friday and Saturday evenings she performs jazz and blues at a motel bar. She gives piano lessons. She is trusting, hopeful and rather naive, living ‘‘ in perpetual amazement that she could be her daughter’s biological mother’’.
She is also resigned to the fact Rachel will always ask black strangers from New York if they know her father. He is an architect in New York City. His name is Robert Smith. This is Rachel’s mantra and she is convinced that one day her inquiries will be successful.
Celia is not so sure. Her daughter is the result of a one- night stand, ‘‘ in a squalid room where the radiator banged and a woman out in the hall kept yelling, ‘ That’s your opinion!’ ’’ She is not even certain his last name is Smith. As the story moves towards its sinister finale, it is clear the absence of Rachel’s father — for whom Mika, the gentle landlord, is a vague substitute — will have vast repercussions for them both.
The owner of the van, Ron, collects and repairs household appliances. He also drives by school playgrounds on an irregular basis and has become obsessed with Rachel. The horizons of his world contract as he succumbs to his chilling, irrational belief that she is not safe living in a house with a man who isn’t her father and to a tormented awareness of the power and implications of his pedophilia.
Ron’s house, ‘‘ a redbrick dump in the middle of an industrial strip of auto body shops and burger joints’’, has a basement flat that he renovates for Rachel, though he is never sure quite how he will capture her. Then there is a blackout in Cabbagetown, Mika has an accident and it is all rather easy.
His habits of secrecy, his volatile moods and his gargantuan struggles to convince himself that by kidnapping Rachel he is doing something honourable are portrayed with forensic clarity. Here the boundaries between normal and criminal behaviour have become porous, and at the same time as he battles with instincts that terrify him, Ron is also capable of small generosities to his partner, Nancy.
Gowdy writes with haunting assurance as she enters the interior lives of each character and of Cabbagetown. The fear that percolates through the country when the kidnapping is broadcast, the silences, the strategies, the checks and balances with which each character maintains a semblance of hope and sanity during the search, including Rachel, are created with subtlety and craft. Her narrative is seamless and her undeniable skill is to make this dark tale of hazard and damage utterly plausible. Cathy Peake is a literary critic and writer based in Braidwood, NSW.