Friday, September 14, 2012

Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm

This novel was a new one for me in terms of this project, because of the way it used Toronto as a setting not by name-checking buildings or intersections, or tapping into the general vibe of the city, but by setting the story in Toronto by virtue of it being the home of so many refugees, undocumented people, and desperate outsiders. The main theme is taking refuge from one's past, claiming a safe space to avoid facing judgement and punishment for crimes of varying - and arguable - severity.

The title comes from the Bible, where the cities of refuge were places where killers could claim asylum. The novel's protagonist, Kim, volunteers at an organization called GROUND that helps refugees with more desperate cases who were refused by government agencies. Some of these people have violent backgrounds, complicated by the political situations of their countries of origin. Some of them are dangerous people, although Kim clearly believes passionately in the work and doesn't see it as a dangerous place for her to be.

The novel starts with a violent attack; Kim is followed, attacked, and nearly killed. She is understandably haunted by the incident, and takes refuge (!) from the world while the people around her struggle to deal with the implications of the attack. Her estranged father believes that it was one of her clients at GROUND, someone who they could not help and who decided to take revenge; or perhaps who was just a dangerous person who missed the taste of blood. Kim reads xenophobia and paranoia into her father's theory, but as it turns out, (somewhat spoiler alert!) this book is really about Harold (the father), and the crime in his past from which he is seeking asylum.

The thing about the cities of refuge is that their protection can only ever be temporary, and the attack serves as a trigger for Kim to begin to unravel her father's past, while he struggles desperately to find her attacker, I guess to redeem himself? Or possibly protect himself? It's...complicated.

First of all, the story here is great. I love this underused and gritty way of looking at Toronto. I really loved the characters, particularly Kim, Harold, and Kim's mother Marian - they are all complicated, flawed and introspective people and we spend a lot of time inside their heads. The plot is clever and uses all those wonderful literary conventions to great effect. But.

Holy shit is it flowery. The language is like poetry - it's lovely, but page after page with just abstract interpretations and nearly incomprehensible philosophical tangents really wears you down. I would have adored this book if it was just the story, written well. And Helm is a good writer. I just feel like - if you want to write poetry, write poetry. This is a novel. Not a poem.

I don't have an issue with poetic writing - see my review of the amazing Consolation - but there's a line that needs to be drawn, and reading this book made me feel exhausted. I just wanted to put it down and scream "Just say what you mean!!". I know some people will enjoy the writing style and to them I highly recommend it. But I don't think I can read another book of his, which for me is the deciding factor: would I look for this author's work again?

Unfortunately, I would not. This is another one of those "good book, not my thing" situations, so I'm going to give it three CN Towers out of five.

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