Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
A glum week, followed by a rainy weekend, is surely the best time for a lighthearted read. Serendipitously, Germaine Johnson, a senior mathematician recently fired from Wallace Insurance, turned up. She was on her way to an interview for a new job, carrying an enormous umbrella and wearing a disposable hooded poncho with matching pants; it was raining there too! Surely, I thought, this meteorological fiction/real life symmetry was an omen. I’m sure Germaine would estimate the probability of in-coming witty prose and charming characters banishing glumness to run at least 95 per cent!
Germaine is the invention of Katherine Collette in her debut novel The Helpline. Katherine has surrounded Germaine with other well-drawn characters, so along with Katherine’s amusing narrative this becomes a most beguiling novel.
Germaine is on the oddball spectrum, but the wet weather gear probably signaled that! She is somewhere between Sheldon (Big Bang Theory), and Don Tillman (The Rosie Project), although, perhaps because of her gender, she sometimes comes across as sadder. This in itself is interesting; expectations of female characters are such that they abound in emotional intelligence, understanding nuanced social situations as if reading an Enid Blyton Noddy novel. But our protagonist sees the world through a prism of mathematical probabilities and pie charts. Written in the first person readers can gauge how social contextual messages escape Germaine’s life equations. She does surprise the reader with a few a profound comments occasionally, thus illustrating how even eccentric perspectives provide valuable insights. As the novel progresses Germaine is changing, baby steps, but change nevertheless. The characters around her have something to do with this; she starts to care about them and so feels obliged to help.
Having been ousted from her job at the insurance company, Germaine gets a position with the local council answering the helpline phones for senior citizens. She is wildly over qualified for this job, but hard times for mathematicians, apparently. She, of course, can only bring her robotic flair to this position but things get complicated when the Mayor Verity Bainbridge, involves her in a secret project. To avoid a spoiler alert, no more will be said, accept that the office politics are funny and, of course, there are a few attractive men involved in the plot. Germaine’s approach to romance is ‘unique’.
The Internet tells me Katherine is a writer and environmental engineer. Regarding the latter she, apparently, is involved in efforts to improve recycling, waste disposal, including control of water and air pollution. Don’t want to appear as if an author stalker, but that does sound a bit mathematical, and I’m beginning to understand how Germaine came into being. Regardless, I’m so glad she has surfaced in this lovely novel. I feel a sequel coming along the pipeline!
By Katherine Collette
$22.99; Pp. 400