The city has been well-chronicled in the past — Hugh Garner’s Cabbagetown and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion are two excellent examples of novels that captured the Toronto of the era in which they are set. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye has a sub-theme that contrasts the Toronto of the 1950s with that of the 1980s. But in the last decade, there has not been a novel that addressed what has been happening in Canada’s largest city — Russell Smith’s satirical Muriella Pent comes closest, but Smith only set out to portray a very thin slice of the city (and he does that very well in a highly entertaining read).
So Helm’s novel held promise. It is his third — his first, The Projectionist, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and was proof positive that he can write. He would seem to have the tools for the ambitious scope of his project.
Cities of Refuge opens with a crime. Kim Lystrander, a former Ph.D. candidate who has abandoned the academy in favor of the real world, has had dinner at her divorced mother’s home (her birth father, a history professor of some renown, is there as her mother’s current husband, a boring mathematics prof, is away at a conference) before heading off on her bicycle to her job as an overnight security guard at what is obviously the Royal Ontario Museum. She locks her bike outside an all-night cafe some blocks from the museum, picks up some coffee for her co-workers and heads to work. Despite sensing that she is being followed, she ventures down a badly-lit block where a new high-rise is at the foundation stage of construction. She is attacked in what promises to be a rape, a struggle ensues and she ends up falling into the excavation, severely injuring her leg when she lands.
When the dark finally began to burn off she heard human sounds. A clacking. Voices. Then she heard the name of Jesus and saw a man in a yellow hard hat standing far above, looking down at her. She stayed awake as they came down. One of them kneeled close by and someone said not to touch her and the kneeler said he would cut away the tape and he put a hand on her head lightly and the moment the air hit her mouth she was sobbing. The man cut free her hands and then stood and stepped back. More men had gathered there but even when the ambulance attendants arrived and strapped her on a board, none came closer.
Helm wastes little time expanding his plot. Kim’s avocation is working as a volunter for GROUND — the Group for the Undocumented — a non-profit agency that works with refugee claimants whose claims have been rejected, moving them about the city from place to place to keep them out of the hands of the authorities who will deport them, probably to a deadly future. Her involvement extends to sheltering individuals in her apartment on occasion (there is one there now). Harold, her birth father (whose specialty is Latin America), is concerned about this; aware that some of these “refugees” are the opposite of innocent victims, that they are the perpetrators of the violence.
The argument against her volunteer work usually ran that she was in over her head and didn’t know it. She did in fact know it, but admitting doubt to him won her nothing. She had to seem sure of herself, not at all who she’d been at university. Long before quitting her Ph.D. there were signs she didn’t belong on her father’s career path. Her work lacked scholarly vigour. Her undergraduate history papers had admitted quite a lot of speculation.
This refugee subtheme diverges even further with the introduction of Rosemary, another worker in the volunteer cause who toils in even shadier territory than GROUND with individuals who are even more suspect, one of whom (Rodrigo) is currently staying with her. An entire subset of action is developed around Rosemary, Rodrigo and his fellow fugitives who are reduced to the kind of slavish day work that is the only thing available to illegal immigrants who will inevitably be deported if they ever come into contact with the authorities.
Harold, meanwhile, gradually becomes obsessed with the notion that the attack on his daughter was committed by one of the GROUND clients with whom she worked. On the one hand, he does try to help her with her emotional recovery, encouraging her to write a narrative on what she experienced, not just to purge herself of it but also with the hope that perhaps it will reveal leads that the police should be following. Kim does and that leads her down some highly speculative paths. On the other, Harold is developing his own theories about just who might have been responsible for the attack and begins his own version of detective work.
Another theme is opened with Kim’s recollection of how her mother (who is dying of cancer, incidentally) and Harold came to conflict and the eventual dissolution of their marriage. And the part played in that by Donald, her mother’s new husband. This line of thought also leads her into her own obsession — Harold was in Chile in the 1970s when the Pinochet coup and resulting atrocities took place but he has never talked about it. Just what was his involvement there?
Harold, meanwhile, has come across Rosemary, her political activity and her boarder — all of which fuels his obsession but also introduces a new one, with his attraction to Rosemary.
Are you getting the impression that perhaps there is just a bit too much plot here? Or rather, too many plots? That’s certainly the way it landed with this reader. As the book goes on, the author needs to spend so much effort and space keeping them all active that he ends up never adequately developing any one of them. Unfortunately, doing that also requires the introduction of ever more implausible coincidences and developments in an attempt to knot the storylines together. And while Helm is an accomplished writer, he is not a particularly gripping one — his style is much more suited to characters and their introspection than it is to being an active observer and describer of their actions and environment.
The end result, at least for me, is a book that opens doors to several fictional rooms, any of which might have lead to an interesting book, but none of which are ever really entered and explored satisfactorily. While I am sure this narrative is a fair representation of the complexity of life that would face any real life version of these characters, it makes for a very frustrating read. As the book proceeds, character development — which should be Helm’s strength — increasingly becomes shallower rather than deeper. And the subplots become almost tedious.
While I salute the author for his attempt to address this complexity, it evolves into a frustrating reading experience. Cities of Refuge ends up being a novel where less would definitely have meant much more. The Toronto of the 21st century continues to await a novelist who can adequately capture its unique character.