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Cities of Refuge

  • Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year
  • Short-listed for the Roger Writer's Trust Fiction Prize
  • Now Magazine Top Ten Book of the Year

    One summer night on a side street in downtown Toronto, Kim Lystrander is attacked by a stranger. In the weeks and months that follow, she returns to the night, in writing, searching for harbingers of the incident and clues to the identity of her assailant. The attack also torments Kim’s father, and as he investigates the crime on his own, he begins to unravel. Entwined in their stories are Kim’s ailing mother, a young Colombian man living in the country illegally, and a woman whose faith-based belief in the duty to give asylum to any who seek it, even those judged guilty, endangers them all.

    A novel of profound moral tension and luminous prose, Cities of Refuge shows how a single act of violence connects close-by fears to distant political terrors. It weaves a web of incrimination and inquiry in which mysteries live within mysteries, and stories within stories, and the power to save or condemn rests not only in the forces of history but also in the realm of our deepest longings.

    • Page Count: 400
    • Direct Price:
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    • March 2013
    • 978-1-935639-49-7
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    Price as Configured $0.00

    Michael Helm was born in Saskatchewan. His most recent novel, Cities of Refuge, is a national bestseller in Canada and was a Rogers Writers' Trust Ficiton Award finalist, a Giller Prize nominee, and a Globe and Mail and Now magazine Best Book of the Year. His earlier novels are The Projectionist, a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Award; and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book. His writings on fiction, poetry, and the visual arts have appeared in North American newspapers and magazines, including Brick, where he serves as an editor. He teaches at York University in Toronto.

    "Standout...[Cities of Refuge] is a powerful depiction of the struggle to overcome adversity." 

    Publishers Weekly, Starred Review


    "[Cities of Refuge] is ambitious; a prototypical big book with deft touches of metafiction. The writing is marvelous, the omniscient narrator almost too wise. . . .Helm’s novel is sure to both delight and provoke." — Booklist

    "...this is a provocative, political and astonishingly well-written novel about a young woman's brutal assault and its profound implications."
    Shelf Awareness


    "Cities of Refuge has a Faulknerian commitment to diverse perspectives . . . .think of Cities of Refuge as the Toronto cousin of contemporary New York novels by and about immigrants such as Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, or Teju Cole’s Open City. Welcome to our shores, Michael Helm, and apologies for the delay."

    — The Daily Beast


    "A powerful and intricate novel about political guilt in contemporary times, intellectually astute and with crystalline writing.Cities of Refuge weaves together the clashes of culture, alongside that of a father and a daughter, to make large issues intimate and in the end heartbreaking." 

    — Michael Ondaatje

    "Michael Helm delivers us to the rarified and unsettling regions of the heart and mind, with winning results: he is a capable navigator, a superb craftsman, and Cities of Refuge is a humane and harrowing novel."
    — Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers

    "Cities of Refuge is an unsettling and powerful novel that beautifully engages the complexities of memory, trauma, and history."
    — Dana Spiotta, author of Stone Arabia and Eat the Document

    "The profound empathy with which Michael Helm imagines his characters into multidimensional life is only one of his many, great gifts. As Cities of Refuge demonstrates, he is also a spectacularly good storyteller and prose stylist with a range and nerve that sets him apart from almost every other writer of his generation."
    — Barbara Gowdy, author of Helpless

    "[W]hat [Helm] shows in a remarkable display of multiple-perspective sympathy, is how, in a world where we’re all inter-connected as never before, guilt and innocence are all but impossible to apportion with finality.... Cities of Refugeestablishes him as one of Canada’s most commanding writers." 
    — Montreal Gazette

    "Cities of Refuge's.... thematic breadth pushes Helm into the front ranks of Canadian novelists."
    — Quill and Quire

    "[A] stunning read..., gripping, thought-provoking, ultimately haunting.... Cities of Refuge may be the future of The Canadian Novel: intrinsically and internally varied, polyvalent, confident, contemporary and challenging. If this is the future, bring it on."
    — Edmonton Journal

    “Helm writes delicately and empathetically, using a photographer’s eye and poet’s lyricism to ... illuminate the consequences of violence and loss.”
    — Elle Canada

    "Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge is an exceptionally well-crafted and ambitious novel. . . . In it, the personal is intertwined with the political, the past with the present, and the familiar with the unexpected."
    — Canadian Literature

    “Let me state simply that this is one of the finest books I have read in recent years. …This is not just a novel set in Toronto; it is about Toronto and it is the most discerning description of the city since Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion…. In his luminous prose, Helm has dared to go beyond the psychological level to the level of spirit.”
    — Literary Review of Canada



    Before the shift that night she left dinner with her parents and biked south in darkness past her apartment building, along into her usual path. The afternoon storms had broken the heat and departed without trace. The air was drying, late-summer cool. On the side streets near campus were weakly haloed car headlights and shad- owed figures waiting to be briefly illuminated. She passed in and out of semiresidential zones, moving now with half-naked teens on in-line skates past the thronging bars and restaurants and the clubs where made-up young women waited outside and men measured them whole in one glance. Down a side street she entered a dark little dead space that emptied back into the traffic and the noisebright streets, on past a long row of trailers and honeywagons, a bored officer on overtime, she stuttered across a dimpled steel ramp over bundled cables, past grips and gaffers with walkie-talkies, and a yellow- lit window full of pretend New York cops. She passed the Vietnamese convenience store always with the same child in diapers in the doorway chewing on a faded cardboard candy ad, past the crowded patio of the ice cream café, across the main arteries of downtown, riding faster, really breathing now, on her way to work.

    Three or four minutes ahead of schedule, she slowed for the last few blocks. In a pocket of quiet she rode imagining her morning self in a kind of perpetual approach, cycling home at daybreak beneath traffic helicopters hanging in a pastel smog, then drifted to a stop and locked her bike to the stand outside the all-nite coffee shop, where she always left it with strangers in the window to watch over it, and bought the usual treats for the security crew. Later she would barely recall the others in the café. There were at least two young people working on laptops and a couple of others, maybe, together or not she couldn’t say. The freckled girl who served her was named Callie, they had each other’s life outlines, and as always she smiled to see Kim and had her order ready.

    The rest of the route took her on foot down a cross street, past her father’s high-rise condo—he was staying at the house tonight—and she was thinking again of morning. As a girl she’d once spied him through sliding glass doors, weeping at a sunrise over Mexico City. He was standing on a balcony, waiting, and when it finally came he had nodded ever so slightly. Over the years it had developed in her mind that he’d simply been overwhelmed by this oldest of affirmations. Against the tribulations of the moment, there was always that, time ongoing as a sure thing each dawn no matter where you were. Except there was likely more to it, she now realized. Whatever had made Harold cry had been balled up in the new day.

    She stopped before a bookstore window display, a gathering of titles without theme. A true-crime celebrity murder, something on Western conservatism, a handbook on Vermeer, an Australian novel, a speed-dating guide. She passed by a short block of closed shops and one bright one, a hair salon with a gospel choir, a church meeting, and going by the open doors she saw twenty or thirty swaying black people, Pentecostals, she supposed, and a tall, angular man leading the singing in front dressed in a dark suit with his hands raised slightly before him as if he were holding a calf up for sacrifice. And no sooner did she pass the door and leave them behind than she knew something had changed, some presence was trailing her in the wake of the music, its last strains and then the memory of it, and the image of the man in the suit, and as she walked on she isolated the feeling. It was the certainty that she was being stared at, with intent.

    Or not certainty but a strong intuition. She focused on her walking. She kept a level step, tried to feel the rhythm she missed when cycling, and despite the tray of coffees she moved at a pace she could never sustain on her security rounds. Even for a young woman, she reminded her- self, it was still possible to feel safe on foot almost anyplace in this city. And there was some magical deterrence of threat in simply walking like you meant it. She’d been followed once, in London. It was late at night, and she’d spent the day, like all the other days there, making wrong turns, mixing up east and west, and getting lost, so she moved a little uncertainly along the last blocks from the tube station to the hostel off Kensington High Street. He’d come from nowhere. As she crossed the park, thinking of a pea- cock that had led her out that morning, he had stepped in behind her, at a distance of ten or fifteen feet, and kept pace. To anyone but her he could have been mistaken for just another stroller in the park, but he was fixed on her, she knew it. When she turned and looked, he met her eye with a round, dull face, and held it. There were people nearby, and just as she spotted a group of young women to trail behind, wherever they were going, she was released of the feeling. As suddenly as he’d appeared, he was gone. Though she looked for him, expected him, in her last days there, she never saw him again.

    The numbers on female victims indicated that the lone late-night attackers seldom just wanted your money or your life. She stopped and turned. There was no one she could see. Down the street a young man emerged from a doorway and got into a parked car and when he started it the lights came up and there was no one. The car pulled out and passed by and the man glanced at her, and his car in the dark was maybe gray-silver, and then another car came by the opposite way and its lights revealed nothing, and she suddenly became aware of herself standing with her cardboard tray and paper bag, looking silly, and she walked on.

    It was another block before the feeling was back in place. She couldn’t hear footsteps exactly, but had the sense rather that under her every footfall, each breath, were other sounds, not hers, the kind of perception you wouldn’t normally take note of in a city noisescape, except that this was a side street, admitting silences and distinctions. And then there was the feeling of being gazed upon. Like many women she was semiused to the gaze, and thought little of it except when it came darkly, as it did now.

    The question was whether to trust her intuition and take a longer, busier way to work, heading north and then west, then digressing south, or to stay the course. Or had the question to do with neurosis or sleep deprivation? Was she paranoid? She trusted her reason. And her wits—she should head for the traffic, join the conflux, risk nothing more than a jostle at the pedestrian lights.

    And yet when she came to the next intersection, she followed habit and turned down the darkest block on the route, most of it unlit next to a vast construction site.
    When she entered the covered walkway that had been built over the sidewalk, with its ceiling and the long plywood wall papered in club dates and lost dogs, a shard of a dream returned to her. It was years old and she likely hadn’t thought of it since the morning she’d escaped it. She was on the downtown edge of a city that was open on one side to a lake that ran to the horizon, Toronto or Chicago, both and neither. She had her back to a wall, looking at the faces of people looking past her, at something out on the water, and thinking to herself that no matter how unlike one another the faces were, the horror in them looked the same. An old man with sunken cheeks. A fat woman in large tortoiseshell glasses. A tall young couple with dark, narrow, Spanish features. And now she wasn’t sure if these were the people of her dream, or the faces of others she’d seen elsewhere.

    A few steps from a small break midway in the wall she saw the wire fence and the gate and noticed that it was slightly ajar so that when she heard the last two or three strides with which he closed the ground between them, she knew at once that she’d been stalked, and the gate seemed a trap, a metal device that opened and closed, and then he drove his shoulder into her and together they fell through the opening into the dark site.