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Review: Cities of Refuge, by Michael Helm

Michael Helm

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Our increasingly fractured world produces a wide variety of refugees. Most obvious are those desperate souls who approach the borders of prosperous countries in search of physical sanctuary. There are others, however, well-fed, safely housed people, who might not have the abject bearing of the dispossessed but nonetheless find themselves spiritually homeless.

Michael Helm's powerful third novel explores what happens when these two types of exiles come together. Set in Toronto, it opens with a violent assault on Kim, a 28-year-old former PhD student who works as a museum guard and a volunteer for a refugee aid organization. Although she is not raped in the attack, her masked assailant does leave her with grave emotional and physical wounds: "The man with the calluses had changed her brain and she needed to change it back."





Her recovery is complicated by the intervention of her father, Harold, a burned-out history professor who specializes in Latin American colonization. On the slimmest of evidence, he comes to believe that his daughter's assailant is a refugee; his suspicions bring him into contact with a devout Christian social worker who provides sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Harold comes to suspect a Colombian, Rodrigo Cantero, who may have connections with a death squad back home. But Harold has a secret past of his own, stemming from his time as a young student in Chile during the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973.

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What is best about the novel is Helm's patient evocation of his deeply wounded characters. Kim is particularly fine, a young woman who has been left spiritually homeless by her father's childhood abandonment. While not diminishing the assault's severity, Helm also makes it clear that this act of savagery provides her with the means to finally confront her emotionally absent father: "Her attacker has given her this way of seeing, and she hates him for the giving, for the beauty of the gift."

It is Harold, however, who proves the novel's most bereft soul. A man of no small charisma and ability, his is a life that is gradually shown to be a teetering scaffolding of lies: "If dissociation were a paying talent he'd own half the city." The ghosts he is really trying to exorcize dwell in a past that he has been fleeing. His tragedy is that there is no returning to the self from which he has been exiled. He has crossed a border that has vanished.

Stephen Amidon, who lives in Massachusetts, is the author of six novels, including Security.

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