Despite ultimately being a feel-good novel, The Helpline is populated with prickly women who are often terse or unkind to the people around them. And it’s wonderful.
The protagonist Germaine likes Sudoku more than people – at least, initially – and firmly rebuffs any and all friendly overtures from her neighbours and colleagues. Celia is the president of the senior citizen’s centre, and is currently waging war on the neighbouring golf club. Verity is the ambitious mayor whose smile only goes as far as her teeth. Dotted between them is a spectrum of other women, each with their own drives and motivations.
Though the plot is at times larger than life, involving disgraced Sudoku champions and the occasional large-scale goldfish rescue, the characters themselves are far from caricatures. No one is cookie cutter and everyone is multidimensional.
It’s author Katherine Collette’s debut book, but she isn’t making a statement with her choice of characters; instead she simply puts real people on the page.
“Really early on I wanted all of the main characters to be women, just because I did want to represent the breadth of female experience,” Collette says.
The plot follows Germaine, a skilled mathematician who is overlooked for a promotion at the insurance company she has spent years working for. She reacts badly, and suddenly finds herself thrown into the job market without references or a life plan. A family member pulls some strings, and she gets work answering phones for the council’s senior citizen’s helpline – a job the pragmatic and impatient Germaine is wholly unsuited to. Before long, she’s embroiled in a corruption scandal.
“Germaine is really borne out of that seed of someone who wanders through life thinking they’re amazing at everything – and everyone around them is in disagreement,” says Collette.
She’s abrasive, but she slowly become more likeable and understandable, though she doesn’t ever sway from her commitment to logic and pragmatism.
This isn’t a character study – the plot comes first. It’s only later, when you’ve put the book down and have had a bit of time to think, you realise the rare accomplishment Collette has made.
So often in media women are presented in a limited number of roles: mother, daughter, sister, hero or villain with not much room for nuance or individuality beyond this. The other option is the Complex Female Character – a loaded term, because when you dissect it usually the character at the centre is a normal person, complete with human contradictions and challenges. Even then we often only get one in any given story.
“Sometimes the characters in so-called ‘female fiction’ or ‘women’s fiction’ and all those sorts of things can be a bit trope-y,” Collette says.
Asked if it’s a harder sell to write a woman who is complex or not initially likeable, the author, who also works as an environmental engineer, pauses to think. “While all the characters are female, I think their traits are not,” she says. “I just see them as such real people.”
The characters and plot have roots in Collette’s own experience – she also worked at a helpline when she was fresh out of uni. “I can remember a really big fuss was made about how many calls I’d answered, and I thought it was because I had really impressed everyone,” she tells me with a laugh. “It wasn’t until they sort of offered me more training that I realised they were all really worried.”
Being grounded in reality, and dotted with kernels of truth means the novel more easily avoids stereotype traps when it comes to character development and motivation.
“They’re not necessarily feminine things,” Collette says. “But it’s not a book around wanting to find love, or wanting to have children … there’s much more in and around ambition. And in terms of relationships, it’s friendship and connection that Germaine is searching for.”
Ultimately, The Helpline is a fun and engaging read, filled with characters who are simultaneously challenging and familiar, and who all – eventually – grow on you.
Katherine’s Collette’s debut novel The Helpline – published by Text Publishing – is available online and in store. RRP $29.99.