Sunday Book Review: "Helpless"

Barbara Gowdy's most recent book, "Helpless", is a fearless, gripping and terrifying novel. It tells the story of a kidnapped child and examines love from a variety of angles; the mother's love of her kid, the kid's love of her mother and the pedophile's love of the little girl. It is this final aspect that is the most interesting and the most disturbing.

Gowdy's greatest strength is her ability to humanize and to expand what we think of as love. She does not judge and she does not pontificate. She merely takes you into her characters' heads, allowing you to see their humanity and make your own decisions. This book plays to those strengths.

The kidnapper is both heroic and pathetic. He is not glamorized. The horror of what he is doing remains obvious throughout the novel. But you can see why he's doing it. You don't need to accept it but you're allowed to look.

The clarity and economy of Gowdy's prose is one of her greatest assets and it serves her well in "Helpless". I never felt like I was looking at the kidnapper through the opinions of a writer, but as he viewed himself. It is a disturbing and tense vision of the soul in conflict with itself.

I saw Gowdy read from this novel a couple of weeks ago and I was struck by something that occurred in the following interview. She mentioned that our punishment of child molesters may lead them to murder their victims. Although pressed, she refused to make judgments about this. She called her insight "a truth that leads nowhere."

"Helpless" is the same type of truth. It challenges us to think about types of love we would rather ignore. It does not ask us to accept them, it just shows us how things are. While the judgments are ours to make, the author's duty is to reveal the facts so that we can base our opinions upon them. Gowdy does her job.

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