Panic in the streets
Some might consider it a bit of a comedown: that after six books of poetry and at least one novel published by a major publisher (Knopf Canada’s Between Mountains in 2004), that Maggie Helwig has decided to publish a follow-up with a small Canadian press in Coach House Books. I was curious, so I asked the publisher about it and was told, “Maggie’s always loved what we do, and that, paired with the fact that we publish a lot of books set in or about Toronto, made us the right home for Girls Fall Down.” Fair enough. It’s still strange, though, that a novel that’s tied not only to Toronto as a setting, but has a framing device involving post-9/11 paranoia couldn’t find a home in a much bigger pond.
Girls Fall Down is about a mysterious gas or poison (or virus, take your pick) that has infiltrated the Toronto subway system in the year 2002 and is causing teenaged girls to become sick with strange rashes and vomiting. Helwig metaphorically makes reference to the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995 (and acknowledges that she was inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Underground in the Acknowledgments section), but it could be a metaphor for any random attack by plague, whether it’s anthrax or the case of SARS that Toronto was overcome with in 2003.
However, the book is really a love story about a diabetic photographer named Alex, who is slowly losing his sight from his disease, and a woman named Susie, who is on her own crusade to find her missing schizophrenic brother. The pair had briefly been lovers in the late 1980s, but that affair was shattered by Susie, who packed up and moved to Vancouver without so much in the way of a forwarding number or address. So when they meet again under coincidental circumstances, it makes for a compelling love story.
It would, perhaps, be more compelling if Helwig didn’t relegate portions of the story to flashback status, making it hard to tell at which point in the relationship the action is taking place. The framing device is annoying too, and interjects itself in weird places in the narrative; it also doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to do with the main action: a simple story of rekindled desire. When the loose threads of the two distinct stories tie up, at the end of the novel, it seems forced and laboured, if not padded. And the action more or less stops on a dime, leaving dear readers hanging as to what happens next. Does Alex go totally blind? Do he and Suzanne stick together in the end? Tough to say. All we get are tantalizing hints that things seem to be on the verge of going wrong.
That said, where Girls Fall Down succeeds is in the actions of its two main protagonists, both of whom might remind readers of Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler’s Wife. In fact, much of the thrill of the novel comes from the fact that Alex is diabetic and could go off into a stupor at any time, any inappropriate time, unless he’s on top of his blood sugar levels. This leads to a bit of paranoia in the narrative: that Alex is about to do (or say) the Wrong Thing at the Wrong Time. It’s like watching a train wreck about to unfold.
Overall, Girls Fall Down is a fun, quick read. But anyone expecting any profundities about terror and what it means in the nature of romance might come away from the book a bit disappointed. One could have done away with the rashes and puking, and come up with a much shorter and easier to digest story about love and its fleeting moments of panic. Helwig might be playing in the minor leagues here, but, after reading Girls this reviewer comes away with the impression that with a little more focus and an eye on the ball, she could hit the next one out of the park.