Monday, 25 March 2019

Book review: The Helpline, Katherine Collette (2018)

This comic gem is all about women but it encompasses a number of major themes. Foremost among these is the importance of cooperation and the dangers of discord, so the book is timely. In an age when the things that separate us seem more prominent than ever before, Collette’s message is crystal clear.

The drama involves Germaine Johnson, who loses her job at an insurance company when an annual review meeting goes badly for her. She lands a new job at the local council in Deepdene (which is a suburb of Melbourne in real life) to be a staffer on the senior citizens’ helpline. Fortunately for Germaine, the mayor, Verity Bainbridge, asks her to help solve a problem the council is having with the committee of the senior citizens’ centre, which uses a municipal property for its activities. Committee members had reportedly chained up the tyres of cars that had been parked in its parking lot but that belonged to patrons of the neighbouring golf course, which is managed by Don Thomas, a man Germaine had known from earlier in her life as Alan Cosgrove the national sudoku champion. Germaine had been a sudoku fan since her adolescence and her job at the insurance company had involved calculating probabilities.

Much to the mayor’s delight, Germaine is successful in resolving the problem with the senior citizens but things become complicated when Germaine gets involved in teaching maths in the centre on weekends. She also starts to have feelings for Jack, a guy from the council’s IT department. And then one day she finds out that Celia, who had been the president of the centre’s committee, has been calling the helpline looking for company as her husband had died.

Germaine is caught between conflicting loyalties, and the magic of the book is to show how her feelings change with time. On the one hand the mayor has been very generous to her, giving her a pay rise and an office. On the other hand she sympathises with the committee and the people involved in the senior citizens’ centre.

It’s not often that you find a competent novel that explores the conflicts that are implicit in keeping an office job, and Collette does a very good job of describing how an individual can be affected by the shifting ebb and flow of power in a typical office. The kinds of stories that Germaine tells herself to justify her behaviour at various points are emblematic of your average workaday existence, and they involve such ideas as justice and expediency, loyalty and friendship. This is a complex novel in which humour functions as a kind of plot device, facilitating the emergence of new trajectories as Germaine navigates the intricacies of office politics and the sometimes conflicting demands of the relationships she makes.

Secondary characters play important roles in the drama. There is Celia, already mentioned, who is a stalwart for the senior citizens and who marshals her forces like a general on a battlefield. There is Germaine’s mother Sharon who is a committed greenie. There is Germaine’s neighbour Jin Jin who is an international student from Japan. There is Betsy from the committee who is a champion CWA bakery expert. And there is Jack, who likes to wear shorts to work and who is kind and a bit goofy (a perfect foil to Germaine’s punctiliousness).

Germaine herself is an interesting and multifaceted character who demonstrates a common human failing: an inability to see ourselves the way others see us. She sometimes bumps into things as she makes her way through the world and even though she has a strong work ethic she often finds herself in conflict with others. She is a comic masterpiece, one suitable for such a novel as this, which is suffused with an abiding humanity and love of justice.

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