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Cities of Refuge

by Michael Helm

Over the past decade, we’ve been inundated with op-ed essays lamenting the lack of a truly urban Canadian literature. Those essays tend to cite statistics demonstrating a consistent demographic shift to urban living throughout the 20th century, and reference Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Atwood’s early and mid-career novels, and Richler’s Montreal-set fiction as rare examples of literature documenting that national trend.

This angst is especially strong in Canada’s largest city. “Where is the Great Toronto Novel?” the columnists cry. (Most recently, Geoff Pevere in The Toronto Star.) When will the city take its place alongside Dublin, Paris, New York, and London on the world literary map? 

Often missing from these opinion pieces is the acknowledgment that plenty of contemporary urban fiction is produced in Canada every year, it just goes largely ignored by the cultural gatekeepers in the media, the publishing industry, and most egregiously, the literary award juries.

Hats off, then, to Michael Helm for Cities of Refuge, an ambitious, thematically dense novel that evokes a vision of contemporary Toronto both instantly recognizable and alien.

Helm sets the bar high in the novel’s opening chapters, in which Kim Lystrander, a bright but intellectually aimless grad-school dropout, is brutally attacked on her way to a night shift at the Royal Ontario Museum, where she passes the time as a security guard. In one of the novel’s many twists, Kim attempts to escape her attacker by seeking shelter in one of Toronto’s countless construction sites, only to be beaten and thrown into the massive pit that will one day serve as a parking garage for a condo tower.

Kim is also a volunteer at a quasi-legal organization that finds shelter and under-the-table work for immigrants whose applications for refugee status have been rejected by the authorities. Kim’s position puts her in direct contact with men who may be, as they claim, escaping the persecution they faced back home or, as her father Harold suggests, fleeing terrible crimes they committed as members of paramilitary squads or drug gangs.

Harold, a professor of Latin American history who witnessed the first wave of violence and repression in Pinochet’s Chile, does not share his daughter’s unconditional compassion for refugees. He has seen the evil that men do, and as the police department’s search for Kim’s attacker founders, he becomes obsessed by the idea that his daughter was assaulted by a man she met at the refugee centre.

Kim revisits that dreadful night in her memory again and again and questions her hidden motivations for leaving herself so vulnerable to attack. Why did she head down a dark, quiet street instead of taking the better-lit main road? Had she subconsciously brought the attack upon herself by working at the refugee centre? “[A]s an open host, constantly aware of her privilege…. She would not have thought that the guilt determined her actions, certainly not her life choices. But just maybe, one night, the work she did in this place had made her take a risk.”

Kim also begins to question her father’s motivations for imposing himself so bluntly into her healing process. Harold has been a largely absent and careless father, and Kim suspects that his need to find her attacker may be linked to his time in Chile, a period he has never spoken about.

Kim and Harold’s investigations draw the reader into Toronto’s intersecting worlds of refugees, immigrants, activists, artists, church workers, academics, police officers, and shady employers, exposing a largely invisible city within the city’s official boundaries.

Helm is especially good at capturing the moral and ideological contortions of idealists confronted with the gap separating their own privileged lives from the downward trajectories of the people they have pledged to help. He also explores the boundaries separating Toronto’s many ethnic groups without romanticizing or demonizing any of them.

However, Helm occasionally falls prey to a malaise common to Canadian novelists: the compulsion to underscore his themes with ponderous, poetic images and sections of overt philosophizing, à la Ondaatje and Anne Michaels. For instance, it’s hard to imagine a woman in the early stages of recovery from a brutal attack experiencing the following epiphany: “There’s a sound the earth makes in its transit, a streaming without music or echo, not coloured or pleasing or solemn or one thing so much like another. If god speaks to us in murmurs, she heard them.”

Also, cutting 50 or so pages would have clarified and dramatized the novel’s conflicts, themes, and characters far more than the frequent passages of internal monologue, reflection, exposition, back story, and authorial commentary book-ending so many of the powerful scenes.

Nevertheless, the novel’s intellectual and thematic breadth push Helm into the front ranks of Canadian novelists. Cities of Refuge also provides us with yet another example of that rare bird, the contemporary Canadian urban novel.