Greenland, Colin: Finding Helen

Plenty to enthral in this fabulous new novel

But this is not a story about Tabitha Jute. It’s not even an SF&F novel. It’s what unenlightened friends who despair of your reading preferences would call a `proper’ book, or the weekend papers would term `literary fiction’. Don’t let that put you off. This is a remarkable book, a contemporary story that explores, among other things, the nature of fantasy. When is fantasy a harmless, indeed necessary release from the mundane cares of day to day life, with entertainments like idle fancies about some secret society of dogwalkers, with chapters in every local park? When does it become disruptive, even dangerous? Is it when the weary and disillusioned Christopher Gale hears a song on the radio by Helen Leonard, 70’s icon whom he adored and better yet, came to know and love in person? Seized by irresistible impulse, Chris enacts that fantasy we all have at some point, that we could just throw a few essentials into a briefcase and walk out of our humdrum lives to find the marvellous future we glimpsed in our youth, which, unaccountably never materialised. This novel is the story of his journey.

Yet from the outset, reality grates against Chris’s fantasy. His dog gets out of the house and he forces himself to leave Jody, tail wagging, shrinking in his rear view mirror. Here we see another question the book explores; where is the line between claiming time and space for oneself and selfishness? Chris struggles with this as he drives north in search of Helen, to London, Derbyshire, Scotland. He wonders when to ring his unexciting wife, what to say to her. Where does the blame lie, between them and between other people for the hurts and misunderstandings? As his search revisits the houses where he lived with Helen and her entourage, we learn more about her, about their relationship and the other relationships in Chris’s life, before and after Helen, parents, sister, lovers. He, like all of us, lives in a complex network. When is that network supportive and when is it stifling? At what point does help from friends and family become interference? When does love become a burden, not a blessing? As he travels, Chris recalls his student self, when first finding Helen diverted him from his planned path. We trace with him that other journey, from youth to adulthood, with all its gains and losses. We look forward to death, to its banality as well as its finality.

All of which might sound like one of those tedious books where cardboard characters in a thinly populated pseudo-landscape chatter about the novelist’s theories on self, relationships and the proper way to brew coffee. Nothing could be further from the truth. The drive of the story and the coherence of the narrative capture you from the outset and this is one of the most vividly realised books I have read in a long time. From the motorway services where Chris first pauses, to the isolated Scottish headland with its lonely lighthouse, meticulous observation and description sets you in the heart of the action. The people are just as real as the places; Chris in his adult, impotent confusion and also in his student mix of innocence, idealism and arrogance. Even characters making fleeting appearances are drawn with crystal clarity that never takes the easy option of casual cruelty. At the heart of the book is Helen Leonard herself; tired singer ready to go home at the end of a gig but kind to a devoted fan; selfish and irresponsible star, sense of self importance distorted by the enclosed, sycophantic world she has created for herself. Or is she something more, a sinister siren luring men to disaster? Or is that simply another of Chris’s fantasies, spun from drug-addled recollection and desperate desire that there be some deeper mystery to justify his behaviour, then and now? Where is the reality and where is the illusion in Chris’s quest for freedom?

The book engages so powerfully because Colin Greenland does not offer up his answers to the complex questions that he explores; he invites you to find your own. You’ll see sunshine and shadow, positive and the negative and all through the prism of your own experiences. I wish Colin had written this book twenty years ago, as I’d love to have read it as a student and be comparing my reactions to it now, to what I had felt then. I know I’ll be rereading it in five, ten and twenty years time, seeing something new, something different in it each time. Since I can’t do the former, short of finding a time machine and I’m too impatient to wait for the latter, I shall settle for giving the book to my twenty-something sister and my fifty-something mother. Novels that captivate all three of us are rare indeed but I’m confident this one will. I can also see them both passing on the recommendation. This is one of those finds that you simply have to share.

So first and foremost read this book for itself. You’re in for a real treat. Secondly, read it so that the next time someone mutters that if SF&F authors were any good, they’d be writing `real’ books, you’ll have incontrovertible proof to hand that genre writers like Colin Greenland can take on the very best of the literary establishment in exploring the human condition while at the same time, writing a real page turner.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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