The Helpline, by Katherine Collette is plain good fun. Set in a local council in one of Melbourne’s bayside surbubs, Geraldine is the unwilling newest employee on the Senior Citizen’s Helpline. It irritates her that some of the local residents seem to be calling just for a chat. It’s so… inefficient.
The Helpline is somewhere between Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and the television satire, Utopia.
Geraldine is joined by a colourful cast of characters as she discovers that there might actually be more to life than what you can put on your resume.
At first Sharon seems like she’s the unsupportive mother who can’t say anything nice to her grown-up daughter. In the opening pages she says to Geraldine:
‘I mean, you’re not stupid. You’re not great with people, obviously. And you’re a bit of a self-promoter. But that’s the Douglas in you.’
The further I read the more it became clear that Sharon actually knows her daughter rather well. She’s not just being mean, she’s actually rather accurate.
Professor John Douglas is the father Geraldine has never met. Everything she knows about him she read in a single newspaper article. But she knows she has his genes. Geraldine likes to measure everything.
…as Professor John Douglas always said, ‘Data is meaningless if you don’t understand how to use it.’
Geraldine is prone to fixating on things, like sudoku (her favourite pastime), and people, like Alan Cosgrove – national award-winning sudoku champion. One day Alan Cosgrove shows up at the council offices. Except his name is Don.
She’s got some pretty interesting views on life. I loved her take on the glass-half-full analogy:
My glass would be fuller, or at least it would feel fuller, instead of feeling like everyone else had got together and agreed on a specific size of glass and volume of liquid and I was wandering around holding a giant mug with a tiny splash of water in it.
Geraldine doesn’t generally do anything unless it directly benefits Geraldine. Even when she finds herself volunteering to help out tutoring maths students at homework club at the senior citizens centre:
I cursed myself and contemplated the empty seat. How annoying. Here I was, making a voluntary contribution to the betterment of society; and Jin-Jin was going to be the beneficiary. I’d have preferred to help someone more deserving. Underprivileged but obviously intelligent, a child preferably, with untapped genius that only I was able to unlock.
Then again, empathy is not her strong suit. Numbers are far better than people:
‘Relationships between numbers are much simpler than relationship between people,’ I told her. ‘People are unpredictable; you never know what they’re going to do, you never know what they’re going to say. But numbers? Numbers are reliable.’
And yet, at times Geraldine does see glimmers of usefulness in unmeasurable experiences. It baffles her. Like that time Geraldine helped Sharon ‘rescue’ dozens of doomed goldfish from a wedding, where they’d been used as table centrepieces. Watching them swim around in Sharon’s bath, Geraldine reflects:
She liked fish but, to be honest, I didn’t. All they did was blink and swim around. Nothing would change in my life if they all died. And yet, their presence at this moment seemed to expand it somehow.
The Helpline is definitely an enjoyable, light read you can pack in your suitcase, enjoy by the pool or just relax with at any time of day.