If Don Tillman and Eleanor Oliphant had a love-child, she would be Germaine Johnson, former Senior Mathematician, recently appointed as call centre staff on the Deepdene Council Senior Citizens’ Helpline (it’s a long story…) Katherine Collette’s delightful novel The Helpline (Text 2018) is a warm and heart-warming tale of biscuits, mayors, bureaucracy, round pegs in square holes, golf, serial pests, sudoku, incomprehensible formulas, Red Emperors and infrastructure. This is a light-hearted, laugh-out-loud kind of rom com, which I can highly recommend as the perfect reading in these Iso times.
You can tell that Katherine Collette has worked the red tape of the public service or sat through many an endless performance meeting. You can tell she has frequented the staff canteen (oh, the horror) or attempted to navigate ridiculous, circuitous management scenarios, and you can tell that she has personal experience with people who we might say are somewhere ‘on the spectrum’. The development of her character Germaine is tender, hilarious, recognisable and empathetic. Germaine has had trouble in the past: trouble fitting in; trouble working with people’s expectations; trouble differentiating the kind from the indifferent to the downright mean. She has been hurt, and so the fortress she has built around herself is unsurprising. But when she gets a new job opportunity at the council, and is forced to personally deal with lonely senior citizens who really just want someone to talk to, she finds that her standardised formulas and performance outcome indicators don’t always work when you factor in human beings with all their vulnerabilities and fallibilities. And when Germaine begins to make some real connections with others, she finds her own defences crumbling (much like an office biscuit) and she is forced to rethink her way of moving through the world and interacting with others.
If you love the writing of Cassie Hamer and Graeme Simsion, you will enjoy the endearing characters and witty dialogue of The Helpline. It is far from saccharine – the characters are three-dimensional, and often dislikeable. You will find yourself cheering Germaine on, despite her many despicable mistakes and her compulsive self-interest. Collette has an engaging way of allowing the reader inside the complicated head of Germaine so that we really begin to comprehend the strange way her mind works; even, perhaps, to understand behaviour that previously we might have written off as odd and strange. Looking through Germaine’s eyes, her actions and thought processes seem perfectly reasonable. This is a feel-good book that would make a great gift for someone wanting a good laugh during these trying times. (Maybe that is yourself?)