Helen’s Story by Rosanne Rabinowitz. PS Publishing 2013
A retro-review by Peter Coleborn
I read Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan a long, long time ago and sadly I can’t recall the details. Having just read Helen’s Story I think I should find my copy and re-read it. This is because Rabinowitz takes Machen’s novella as her starting point and looks afresh at one of the characters in Pan – Helen Vaughan – and tells her story. The good thing is, you can read Helen’s Story without prior knowledge because the writer so ably immerses you in her tale, dipping into the now and the then with consummate ease.
Helen lives in London, an artist of massive canvasses, painting landscapes that tell her story, attempting to capture everything that happened to her, attempting to find a way to join her companion – a creature that morphs into whatever shape or gender it chooses, including a certain being that is – well – Pan. She stages showings in her studio, using some of the raw responses the paintings cause in the viewers to embellish, enhance and further her work. Among the audience is a man who bears an uncanny history with hers.
Helen’s Story is so well written the novella flows effortlessly through the reader’s mind, subsuming him or her into this exotic and very erotic tale. Helen Vaughan is a strong character yet at times suffers from self doubt – a result of her strange upbringing, in a house with a cold scientists, in boarding schools in which she is the outcast, and in the woods with the creature who becomes her life-long companion, even if it neglects her for decades at a time. Helen is a timeless woman, born in the 19th century, her appearance evolving to remain youthful. The final scene in Helen’s studio is a set piece in which she and the audience become subsumed into her work, chasing the elusive companion.
This novella is another exemplary publication from PS, beautifully produced and designed, from the gorgeous cover art (by Erika Steiskal) right through to the final endpapers. Helen’s Story is a tour de force of one woman’s fight to understand her nature – and is quite simply a masterpiece. I’d place it in the same class, the way it mixes the real and the myth, as Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce and Among Others by Jo Walton. I saw a post online that the book is now out of print. Let’s hope some other publisher picks it up so everyone can read and enjoy it