Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Helplessly Waiting for the new Gowdy

Last night I read in Toronto Life that Barbara Gowdy's got a new Toronto novel coming out anon. It's called Helpless (Harper Collins, 2007: release date February 16 according to The publisher's description:

Helpless is Barbara Gowdy’s brilliant new novel, a provocative, gripping story of an unthinkable act and a mother’s heroic love for her child.

Rachel is an uncommonly beautiful young girl. With her tawny skin, pale blue eyes and chromium-blond hair, she is a cherished gift to her mother, Celia. Celia is a single parent holding down two jobs. All too aware of her own precarious equilibrium, she worries about Rachel’s innocent longing for her unknown father.

When a blackout plunges the city into darkness and confusion, Rachel is snatched away. Celia, numb with terror and guilt about the choices she has made, confronts the reality of every mother’s worst nightmare. The media coverage is tremendous. Closely monitoring it is Ron, a small-appliance repairman with a rare collection of vintage vacuums in his basement. Though Rachel is a stranger to him, he feels oddly connected to her, as though she is his responsibility. His feelings for her are, at once, tender, misguided and chillingly possessive.

Tapping into the fear and tension just below the surface of contemporary city life, Gowdy’s clear-eyed prose artfully urges us to consider what we dare not look at too closely. With her uncanny ability to lay bare our common soul and to fearlessly explore the intricate complexities of love, Gowdy has created a masterful novel.

I've pre-ordered a copy from (Surprised? If you're curious about my book-buying practices, check out "BMV Books: Toronto's Latest Literary Anti-Christ?", an article I wrote recently for Reading Toronto. I tend to buy new major press books online so I can afford to buy smaller-press books locally in person.) Once it's released I'll review the book for Reading Toronto.

Gowdy's novels are almost always somewhat uncomfortable to read, partly because they seem to hone in on the perverse (or sometimes merely perplexing) facets of human behaviour. Her short story, "We So Seldom Look on Love" (1992, anthologised in her story collection of the same title) describes a necrophiliac woman's desire to connect with something transcendent even in death; this story was turned into the well-known film Kissed (1996). Her excellent Mister Sandman (1995) explores how dark secrets can sometimes keep a family together. Falling Angels (1989) is a suburban gothic about relationships between compulsive, abusive parents and their co-dependent daughters. Gowdy's much award-shortlisted novel about elephants, love, death, and memory, The White Bone (1998) made her a literary mogul. I am reluctant to confess that I haven't read it (yet), nor The Romantic (2003), nor what appears to be her first novel, Through the Green Valley (1988). Summer reading, perhaps.

Gowdy's literary gifts are prodigious. She is a superb stylist who constructs novels rather than the incompletely scripted prose renderings many well-known Canadian writers produce (I love those texts, too, but it's often an error to call them novels: Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion -- which I admire for its lyrical qualities and rich symbolism but not for its plot -- is probably one of the worst offenders). Her imagination for the disturbing is unique, perhaps most of all because she can humanize even monstrosity. She reminds us that our own struggles against selfishness, envy, rage, and love may be different only circumstantially from those of the characters she constructs her novels around.

I expect that Gowdy's new novel will ruffle a few feathers, tackling as it appears to the squirm-inducing subjects of pedophilia and obsession. Likely a few shocked reviewers will write "Well I never ...!" commentaries on the book, and will seek to pigeon-hole Gowdy further into the "Southern Ontario Gothic" slot they seem to have chosen for her. But I anticipate it will be harder to undo the power of her narrative and text. I look forward to reading Helpless, and will report my thoughts on it soon

By the way, if your tastes run toward the 'gothic', some other Toronto novels I'd recommend highly are Michelle Berry's Blind Crescent (2005, an amusing suburban horror reminiscent of Don Delillo's work), Bill Cameron's Cat's Crossing (2003) or Timothy Findley's Headhunter (1993).

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