Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose in Proof I Was Here, the debut novel by Toronto writer Becky Blake. Expat Niki walks out of her Barcelona apartment, leaving her relationship – along with her keys and wallet so that she no longer needs to be wary of strangers and thieves – and suddenly the city opens up for her. When a thief on the subway steals the one thing left in her pocket – a paint chip – Niki falls into his orbit, finding community with the knock-off purse-sellers and street performers who are his friends. A shoplifter since childhood – and facing an assault charge in Toronto – Niki is at home among the misfits, sheltering with them at night in the skeleton of a half-built tower whose construction has been halted since the 2008 economic downturn.
Eventually Niki moves to a squat, where she lives with a group of “freegans,” then takes up with a graffiti artist who is also a Catalan separatist. All the while, her court date back in Canada looms and she considers the possibility of putting her old life behind her forever.
Blake conjures a Barcelona that exists beyond the guidebooks and portrays an international cast of characters whose different paths have delivered them to the city’s streets. Less entrancing is Niki herself. She is elusive, partly by design – the novel’s premise is contingent upon her seeming to leave no trace wherever she goes. But compared with the richness of her present, Niki’s connections to her past (illustrated via her memories and one significant telephone call) are superficial and unconvincing. Further, her character is passive, so that instead of learning about her through her engagement with the world, she must repeatedly explain herself and her motivations (“I just couldn’t believe I’d done something so impulsive”). The effect on the reader is a strain.
At the same time, the set-up in Proof I Was Here offers an interesting twist on the conventional expat narrative. This vibrancy imbues the novel with freshness and an energy that helps propel it toward a satisfying conclusion.