book review: Afraid of Everything

"I’ll need an hour to get there, don’t you think? I know exactly where it is, over near the shopping center at Old Pasadena. A thirty-minute drive from our house, but you never know with delays. I’ll head west on the 210 and take the San Fernando exit, driving the rest of the way via surface streets. Or I could get on Colorado and take it straight there. No, on second thought, I don’t want to accidentally end up at the mall, so forget Colorado Boulevard."
I slipped the card into my wallet. “If there’s extra time, I might call this Gloria person. If I feel right about it. Meanwhile, I’ll tidy up. It’ll help to calm me down.”
Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything was an interesting book to read. I went in expecting, based on the back-of-book blurb, that this was going to be a Nora Roberts-type story of a woman overcoming emotional and psychological challenges. It is that, but the structure and plot are more in line with much older forms of literature than the novel. Large parts of it reminded me of the dialogues between Socrates and Plato; the entire middle section read like the allegorical journeys undertaken in proto-novels from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The main character, Helena Carr, is an unemployed nurse who suffers from general anxiety disorder. As the book title tells us, she is afraid of everything. The reader mostly knows this because Helena is constantly telling everyone she knows that she is afraid of everything: her therapist, naturally, but also acquaintances as slight as her next-door neighbour's nephew, whom she meets at a barbecue party.

The first half of the book lets the reader meet Helena, find out about her current situation, and discover her history of anxiety with some well-placed flashbacks. This exposition is completed with skill, and there are some acute observations about life in suburban America that many readers will find themselves nodding along with. I did wish that the reader could have learned what led Helena to quit her job through a more immediate narrative; instead, we read a version of what happened as she explains it to her therapist, which made the events less immediate, more difficult to empathise with the anxiety it caused Helena. Even so, given later events in the book (no spoilers!) this may have well been by design.

Helena has a serious car accident halfway through the book. Now, no spoilers again: it's mentioned in the About the Book blurb (see below). Helena is in a coma, but her consciousness is on a different plane of existence, with only a vague awareness of what is happening around her physical self.

“Of course you could have. I’ve been with you for a very long time, Helena, well before you chose to turn your back on that little girl. This was before I got promoted.”
“From being a Trusted Guide to something more?”
“The Trusted Guides stay on the Other Side, waiting. They aren’t allowed to visit here as I do with you,” she ended with a slight toss of her head.
“What are you?” Helena asked, hardly hoping for an answer. She expected any minute to see Coriander stand up, reach into Helena’s close quarters to pat her hand as she always did and disappear until next time. “An angel?”
“I am a Friend. A Third-Level Friend, I might add,” she stated.
“A . . . a Third-Level Friend?”
“My duties are to comfort and protect. To succor the weak, to lift up the hands that hang down. To minister. To counsel.” Coriander counted down the five points on the fingers of one hand as she spoke. “I don’t claim to be perfect, not yet anyway, but I think I’m fairly good at what I do.” She peered down at Helena and added demurely, “I hope you think so, too. I hope I have been a help to you during your time of need.”

It was the second half of the book which reminded me of allegorical narratives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries very much. The language is in the style of contemporary America, but most of the dialogue (and there is a lot of dialogue, here and throughout the book) is on this level of metaphysics and philosophical exposition.

I wasn't sure if the author was drawing from an established mythos or one she'd invented for the book. Christianity seems to be present in the concepts of heaven, angels, and a singular God, but there's also a lot about past ancestors watching over us, a version of reincarnation, and some other aspects which reminded me more of New Age/non-Abrahamic religions. Of course, since Helena is in a coma at this point, it could also be construed as different parts of her brain constructing a dream reality in which to consult, comfort, and heal each other. Parts of it, such as the excerpt I quoted above, reminded me of George talking to Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life.

Even in this altered state of consciousness, Helena is, as a medical professional, very aware and very concerned about her both her chances for survival and the hospital procedures which may influence that. I have to say, as someone who has lived all her life in a country with universal healthcare, the idea that a coma victim would spend time worrying her relatives might be forced to "pull the plug" when the insurance money ran out terrifying. To people who live in different circumstances I would guess it would come across as a serious but practical consideration.

I think if you're someone who can relate to the American suburban lifestyle but wants to experience a journey which mostly takes place in metaphor and metaphysical discussion, Afraid of Everything is a book you should check out. I recommend trying the excerpt on Amazon.

About the Book

Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything is a touching and expertly written book about the life and experiences of Helena Carr as she explores an intriguing new world.

Helena Carr is afraid of everything. After a crisis at work, she quits her job and feels lost. It’s time for a serious change, to beat the extreme anxiety that has plagued her since childhood. Something different, unplanned and radical. Sell her house, move to a foreign location, turn her life upside down in an effort to end the emotionally paralyzing fear. 

Before Helena can act on her options, however, she has a terrible accident on a Southern California freeway. Instead of going on an exotic vacation, she is in a hospital, in a coma, traveling to strange worlds in another dimension, meeting people who seem to know more about her than she knows about herself. 

As Helena explores this intriguing new world, she realizes the truth about her past and the purpose of her future. And she is no longer afraid. She is at last ready to live. But first, she must wake up from the coma.

Paperback: 285 Pages

Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: WiDo Publishing (October 7, 2014)

Twitter hashtag: #AfraidGowen

Afraid of Everything  is available as an e-book and paperback at Amazon

About the Author:

Born and raised in central Illinois, Karen Jones Gowen now lives and writes in Panajachel, Guatemala. She and her husband Bruce are the parents of ten children. Not surprisingly, family relationships are a recurring theme in Gowen's writing. Her children’s stories have appeared in the Friend, and her essays in the Jacksonville Journal Courier. Gowen's published books are Farm Girl, Uncut Diamonds, House of Diamonds, Lighting Candles in the Snow, Farm Girl Country Cooking: Hearty Meals for Active Families and Afraid of Everything. She blogs at her website, and at Coming Down the Mountain.

Karen can be found online at:

Twitter:  @KarenGowen