I have alluded, a couple of times I think, to the awesomeness of Barbara Gowdy on this blog, but I based my opinion on only one novel--the audacious, utterly unexpected masterpiece The White Bone. This is a book about elephants. Just elephants. All the characters are elephants, thinking elephantine thoughts. It sounds like the stupidest book in the world, but it is amazing.
So a few weeks back I found her latest novel, Helpless, at the bookstore Rhian works at, and I bought it even though it's about a nine-year-old being kidnapped by a pedophile. I put off reading it for a long while, then started it last night at last, before going to bed.
I didn't sleep much, and I didn't do much today except read the thing. It is freaking marvelous, and Gowdy is now officially one of my favorite living writers. The book is written in a roving third person, and we are privy to the thoughts of the girl, Rachel, who is kidnapped; her mother, Celia; the kidnapper, Ron; and Ron's girlfriend, Nancy. All of them--and I mean all of them--are fully drawn, and the villains, Ron and Nancy, are stunningly sympathetic. Throughout, you are rooting for a happy ending, but you're rooting less for the bad guys to be caught than for the bad guys to think better of being bad. You want them to win, by allowing their better selves to emerge. There is no question of Gowdy supporting their actions, but she embraces their humanness as completely as she does that of Rachel and her mother--more, in fact, because Ron and Nancy are the standout figures here, absolutely convincing, and fascinating to watch. Ron's battle against his sickness is moving and harrowing; even more maddening is Nancy's struggle to beat through the wall of her clumsiness and gullibility. The book is about people who want to do the right thing, when they have already failed to do it and have rendered it almost impossible to do. It is a sad, gripping story.
Those who read my posts know I love crime novels, but this book--a literary outing through and through--is a better crime novel than any crime novel I've read in a long time. With only the faintest semblance of plot, it strikes you with the force of a flat-out, nail-biting white knuckler.
The funny thing is, if this were an American novel (Gowdy is Canadian), it might well become "controversial," presuming as it does that a pedophile is a human being, a kind of presumption that is not looked upon kindly here. I'm reminded a bit of the recent film The Woodsman (not a Canadian production as far as I know, so maybe my theory's shot), a movie in which Kevin Bacon plays a sympathetic pedophile. The movie's good, but it's not as good as this book--what seems like wishful thinking on the film's part is presented in Gowdy's novel as unalienable truth.
Anyway, I had avoided reading Gowdy's other stuff in the wake of The White Bone, for fear that I wouldn't like it quite as much. Helpless has broken the back of that irrational fear.