Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge is a novel of precise characterization, muscled metaphors, and intelligent complexity. After 28-year-old Kim Lystrander suffers a brutal assault in downtown Toronto, she remains haunted by the apparent senselessness of the event. To deal with the trauma, she begins to imagine her unknown attacker, reconstructing the night and crafting its history.
While her life reknits, her father Harold’s unknots. A historian, equally obsessed with reconstructing the night of Kim’s attack, which underlines his sense of himself as a failed father, Harold is not content with imaginings and possibilities. His attempts to discern the truth of that night, to sift it out from the world’s randomness, cause him to return to the trauma of his own violent youth.
Before the attack, Kim worked for an organization that helped people who were refused refugee status. Harold, convinced the attacker knew Kim through this work, mounts an investigation contrary to Kim’s own. Both draw deeper into the world of illegal refugees and its violence.
Helm never forgets to weld character actions to plot development, and the story proceeds through inevitable yet compelling events. Although characterization drives the novel, it’s nonetheless well-plotted. Despite dense and blocky prose, the pages breeze by.
The writing is fresh and elegant, rarely tipping into extravagance. A small park “sat bright and dead. In the playground, far below the lone vapour light, a small green whale smiled on its coiled spring.” Kim’s bicycle light “beam shivered before her, then steadied on its small spot of the world to come.”
Most of the dialogue in the book is reported rather than relayed, so that almost every page contains one or more paragraphs of summarized conversation. It can be wearisome to constantly read overviews of a scene rather than seeing the scene played out. Thankfully, this method is justified by the novel’s theme of imposed distance from the truth of stories, and thus satisfying when it might not be otherwise.
Where Helm falters is when dishing out dollops of narrator-wisdom. We are informed that what Kim “didn’t think, only came to realize, is that when you work at the nexus of a thousand bad histories, you breathe something in, some essence of dire luck.”
Passages like this draw dangerously close to melodrama, although for the most part Helm is more restrained and graceful. Kim and Sadaf (a refugee she is helping) are said to be “part of a repeated design they would never see whole.” Here the narration reflects Kim’s thoughts, tied to the character (not floating loose), and works as a metaphor for the novel.
Such obligatory story-about-stories moments are not contrivances but integral, significant plot turns. Helm walks many fine lines to offer an engrossing story that approaches but evades the pitfalls to which many similar works fall victim.
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