The Globe and Mail loves to get scared by Girls Fall Down

By Fiona Foster
Globe and Mail
May 17, 2008

Alex hasn't seen Susie-Paul since their days at a dissident Toronto newspaper. Back then, he resisted the demands of his diabetic blood, living always on the edge of a sugar crash, high on the risk and on turbulent Susie-Paul. Now he lives a quiet life alone, his main contact with people through his camera's lens.

When Susie-Paul reappears, Alex tries to keep a distance. He monitors his blood sugar, goes to work, feeds his cat. But she needs his help and Alex finds himself getting drawn in despite himself. Susie-Paul has been mapping the social networks of street people in an effort to find her schizophrenic brother, who went off his medication and disappeared several months before. Winter is coming on, her brother is still missing and Susie-Paul is scared.

The whole city, in fact, is scared, though more abstractly. On the same day that Susie-Paul comes back into Alex's life, a young girl collapses on the subway, victim of a mysterious illness. Within minutes, a second girl falls, there are shouts of poison gas and fear spreads through the streets of Toronto.

In her third novel, Girls Fall Down, Maggie Helwig follows that fear as it moves through the city. She has built a formidable thing in these pages, tracing the moments that connect 2.5 million people 'who live close together in the cold, and know that they must be patient.'

Girls Fall Down gives fresh and intelligent thought to our responsibility for the people around us. As the mysterious illness advances, paranoia sets in. Whatever is causing people to fall leaves no sign in their blood, and the haz-mat teams detect no poison. In the absence of any other explanation, the blame falls easily, unthinkingly, on terrorists. Within minutes of the first case, subway-riders posit that 'it could be one of those, you know, Middle East things.' Mochaccino-sipping teenagers assert nervously that 'someone should do something about it.' A man in a turban is arrested for leaving his bicycle unattended with plastic bags hanging from the handlebars.

Helwig's novel, however, is neither easy nor unthinking, and the city she shows us is victimized, as much as anything, by its own fear. Alex finds himself in the middle of this crisis, called on to meet impossible demands. After years of deliberately ministering to his own needs with insulin and emotional distance, he is suddenly entangled.

As Susie-Paul's search drags on, she must face the possibility that her brother does not want to be found. If he is outside, he could very well freeze to death. Does his mental illness entitle Susie-Paul to save him against his will? Helwig suggests that in the perilous real world, we must take each another on, that this is part of love, and that it is not only people at the fringes of society who need care and guardianship, but every anxious, wounded one of us.

Girls Fall Down echoes the shape of city living, alternating between Alex's story and glimpsed moments of the city at large. The technique creates an impression of complexity behind what is otherwise a very straightforward plot, and Helwig's tone in these incidental passages is perfectly balanced between dispassionate and sympathetic. We are offered highly personal moments without ever feeling crowded by sentiment.

This is not always the case with the main plot, unfortunately, where Alex, despite his self-imposed detachment, is profoundly sentimental. This is endearing as a character trait, but the reading would benefit from less access to his thoughts, which tend to circularity and can be cloying. Likewise, dialogue frequently does a disservice to Susie-Paul, who speaks with self-indulgent melodrama that is appropriate to her personality, but nonetheless off-putting when there is little in the surrounding narrative to build a more nuanced character.

Thus, the writing steals crucial amplitude from the story's central relationship, and interest lags at points. Happily, these failings are redeemed in an emotionally convincing conclusion that speaks to complex people in real relationships.

Girls Fall Down is a thoughtful articulation of life in contemporary Toronto. Maggie Helwig focuses her lens close, on the 2.5 million hearts of it.

Fiona Foster is a Montreal-based writer and editor.

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