Montreal Gazette praises 'stellar' Girls Fall Down

By Saleema Nawaz
The Montreal Gazette
October 31 7600

Fear and loathing in T.O.

Portrait of city in peril has moral undertones

SALEEMA NAWAZ

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A girl breaks out in a rash and crumples to the floor of the subway. Her friend falls down a few minutes later, as do two more commuters in the station. The call goes out for a hazmat team, and rumour spreads that Toronto has suffered a poison gas attack. Blood tests on the girls reveal nothing unusual, but as the panic swells, people all over the city start collapsing.

Such is the unsettling and dramatic opening of Girls Fall Down, Maggie Helwig's stellar third novel.

Photographer Alex Deveney is there when the first girl falls and the subway shuts down. Above ground on Bloor St., he's snapping photos of the ensuing gridlock when a chance encounter with a former co-worker sets in motion a reunion with Susie-Paul Rae, a woman he was in love with in 1989. Enlisted to help find Susie's schizophrenic brother Derek, Alex is thrown back to the heady days of 'the Susie year,' when an unrequited passion led him farther and farther into self-destruction. Against the backdrop of a city in peril, their search feels even more fraught as Alex struggles with what it might mean to give up his well-ordered life to the chaos of loving Susie-Paul.

Though the narrative is propelled by the search for the missing man, Girls Fall Down is a tale of paranoia and mob mentality rendered in faultless and precise prose. Set under the shadow of modern terrorism, with echoes of SARS and prescient rumblings of avian flu, the novel offers a realistic vision of Torontonians under pressure, ripples of panic barely breaking the surface of subdued Canadian politeness.

The problem, as Helwig frames it, is that while danger can be confirmed and quantified, it is infinitely harder to prove it isn't there. A young medical resident first recalls an odour of exhaust preceding her collapse, but later amends this to 'a smell like the absence of a smell.' Later, an office building is evacuated when a package is discovered labelled, 'THIS IS NOT ANTHRAX.' It isn't anthrax, but that fact does little to quell the growing anxiety.

Another pressing worry is Alex's eyesight -- he has been diagnosed with a progressive diabetic complication that leads to blindness. Compelled to make the most of his skills before his eyesight succumbs, Alex spends nights roaming the city, camera in hand, hoping to capture something that others have overlooked. Like Alex, Helwig's narrative has the sweeping gaze of a seasoned commuter, taking in the Gaps and HMVs, the overheard conversations, and the fleeting scenes and brief encounters that make up daily life in a city of millions. A woman, terrified of contagion, scrubs her front steps. A young boy on the subway deliberates over the spelling of his rap lyrics. And in a spontaneous instance of generosity, a stranger offers Alex half of her mandarin orange.

This meticulous and often poignant realism is the source of the novel's power. Though she writes with an acute awareness of such societal problems as poverty and systemic discrimination, Helwig resists easy answers. Nevertheless, there is a moral component to the novel as she repeatedly nudges the reader's focus back to the social fringe, as the search for Derek leads Alex and Susie-Paul to low-income basement apartments and community shelters and down into the ravines where the homeless camp out.

Helwig also gives us a view on the first girl who fell, the one who started it all. We see her chatting on the phone about Gilmore Girls and doodling in her notebook, and we find out, in bits and pieces, the events of the day leading up to her fateful subway ride. Girls, we learn, sensitive as tuning forks, have collapsed in large numbers in Kosovo, in Palestine and Jordan, and in factories in Asia -- though a telling early allusion to the murder of Reena Virk serves as a reminder that girls can be perpetrators as well as victims.

But though the current of fear set off by the girls leads to troubling outcomes (a man in a turban is cruelly beaten by police, another man seen muttering to himself is set on fire by a couple of drunk teens), the overall tone of the novel is optimistic. If unacknowledged fear is at the root of terrible action, the balanced moral weight of fine fiction is uniquely suited to expose it.

Saleema Nawaz is a Montreal writer.

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