SF Novella of the Month, April 2022: Helpmeet

The #sfnovellaofthemonth for April 2022 is Naben Ruthnum’s Helpmeet, forthcoming in May 2022 from Undertow Publications.

It’s possible that body horror rooted in a mysterious and terrible illness is not the best choice of reading material when the reader is sick in bed with COVID-19. I, however, am not always known for making the best possible choices, and so when the fever abated just enough to allow more than a few moments of reading at a time, I eagerly switched on my ereader and let myself be carried away by Naben Ruthnum’s beautiful and disgusting tale of complex marital devotion.

Truthfully, based on the snippets I had seen from other ARC readers, I thought this novella would be more gross than it was, and I was ever so slightly concerned I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Maybe it’s just because I’m still running a fever and feeling quite detached from both the world and my own body, but the body horror—grotesque though it is—did not hit me as hard as I was expecting. What struck me and stuck with me far more intensely was how delightfully inexplicable I found the protagonist’s disturbing level of dedication to her dying husband. I don’t want to spoil what happens in any part of this book—it is so brief, and so strange, and I think surely best experienced without too much forewarning—but I must say that the emotional state of its characters was truly beyond my ken. This, I must also say, is what made Helpmeet such a great read.

Depending on who you are and how you have experienced love, I expect there are many ways to receive this story. I doubt there’s any one particular best way. There are, of course, a few features I think should be evident to all readers. Ruthnum’s lovely prose, of course, at once a reasonable pastiche of a bygone style and possessed of a fluid, pleasantly readable modernity—a tidy balancing act, nicely pulled off in a way that perfectly suits the story and its setting. The hazy, eerie calm of the way every character who matters accepts everything that happens, no matter how distressing—this is nearly as unsettling as the devoted wife’s lack of concern regarding the worst of her husband’s past actions. The startlingly fantastical ending—truly not where I would have expected this to go. This is a strange little chimera of a book, holding many different possibilities and reflecting, I expect, more than a little of what the reader brings into the reading.

I think this is the kind of book that will stick around in my memory long after reading. At this point I am still quite ill—thankfully, less revoltingly so than the husband in Helpmeet—and perhaps when I have recovered I will find that this story takes on a new shape in my mind. I’m looking forward to finding out, and maybe even to reading it again in a less feverish state. I’d recommend this one to anyone with a strong stomach—or, perhaps, an illness-induced detachment from things physical—and anyone who likes to contemplate the most dire frontiers of attachment.

I received a free e-ARC of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss+. All opinions are my own, though I will admit to having a standing bias in favour of Undertow titles because they are all really good. I am not associated with the press in any way, though; I am merely a devoted fan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s