Step into my par­lour, said the rock spi­der

Help­less By Bar­bara Gowdy Lit­tle, Brown, 306pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cathy Peake

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.

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