In Search of Sanctuary

  • Michael Helm (Author)
    Cities of Refuge. McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Steven Heighton (Author)
    Every Lost Country. Knopf Canada
Reviewed by Gordon Bölling

On 30 September 2006, Kelsang Namtso, a seventeen-year-old nun, was shot by Chinese border police in an attempt to stop a group of more than seventy Tibetan refugees from fleeing to Nepal. This incident near the Nangpa La, a 5,800 meter mountain pass on the border of Nepal and Tibet, serves Steven Heighton as the point of departure for Every Lost Country, his third novel. As he writes in his acknowledgments, Heighton began work on the book in February 2007, less than half a year after the actual event. Although Every Lost Country chronicles the plight of the Tibetan people under Chinese rule, the novel’s focus lies squarely on a group of four, wholly invented Canadian characters that travel to the Himalayas for a range of reasons. There is Wade Lawson, a professional mountaineer from British Columbia, who is desperate to be the first to reach the summit of Mt. Kyatruk. He sees his current expedition primarily as a means to restore his tarnished reputation as a first-class climber. Therefore, and to enable the commercial exploitation of his feat, he has enlisted the help of Chinese Canadian documentary filmmaker Amaris McRae. Lawson is also joined by Lewis Book, the expedition’s base camp doctor, and his daughter Sophana. For several decades Book has done crisis postings in such war-torn countries as Bosnia and Rwanda only to realize the gradual unraveling of his own family in his native Canada: A family is its own small country and culture and he has been displaced from his, just a marginal participant in its constant, necessary renewal. Sophana accompanies her father on his latest, seemingly less dangerous engagement in an attempt to restore the ties between father and teenage daughter.

For these characters, the expedition to the Himalayas becomes a test of courage. In the course of the fast-paced narrative, the four Canadians repeatedly need to readjust long-held views and attitudes: Though Kyatruk is the highest peak in the area, from here it’s hidden. A paradox of perspective: how the high peaks you see from fifty miles away vanish behind the lower ones as you near, so getting a view of a mountain is like getting a clear vision of a life—you have to pull away from it before its shape starts to emerge from behind all the concealing layers.

None of the protagonists is left unchanged, and those who eventually return to Canada do not do so unscathed. In the aftermath of the Nangpa La shooting incident, Lewis, Amaris, and later Sophana are taken into custody by Chinese border patrols. The first of the novel’s two narrative strands recounts their adventures and their eventual return to freedom. The second, less prominent (though no less important) narrative strand deals with Lawson’s abortive attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Kyatruk. Heighton switches back and forth between the two parallel plotlines, makes ample use of cliffhangers, and constantly changes perspectives. This rapid pace is part of the pleasure of reading Every Lost Country. Still, Heighton’s writing is even more rewarding in those quiet passages in which he steps back from the action and takes his time to explore his characters, the cadences of their inner worlds, in more detail. Ultimately, it is in these moments that the larger ethical questions which form the backbone of Heighton’s novel are explored. Lewis Book, for example, has always known that there is no such thing as a bystander, a lesson he and his fellow travellers do well to remember in Tibet. Steven Heighton’s Every Lost Country is both a modern story of adventure set in Tibet and a profound exploration of, to borrow a title by Marilyn Bowering, what it takes to be human.

The link between Every Lost Country and Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge is a shared concern for universal human rights. Helm’s third novel takes its title from the Biblical Book of Numbers, in which six cities are designated as places of refuge for anyone who has killed a person without intent. Set in present-day Toronto, Cities of Refuge sheds light on the lives of illegal immigrants in Canada’s largest city. Helm’s protagonist, twenty-eight-year-old Kim Lystrander, has abandoned her PhD and is working part-time at GROUND, the Group for the Undocumented, where she helps refugee claimants such as the Iranian dissident Sadaf to hide from Canadian authorities. Kim also holds a job at a museum in downtown Toronto and is on her way to work one night when she is brutally attacked by a stranger. Only narrowly does she escape being raped. This act of violence is the novel’s key scene. Its various plotlines ripple outwards from here. Traumatized by the event, Kim compulsively returns to the attack in her writing. However, Kim’s exploration of the past does not stop with her own life: And so she began retracing the long arc of her life, and the lives of others, and things like chance and the city itself, the zones where lives collided. She soon realizes that she is able to imagine the life of her unknown assailant. For her, this proves to be both a burden and a blessing: Everything connected. Her attacker has given her this way of seeing, and she hates him for the giving, for the beauty of the gift. It’s been forced on her and she will never be free of it. She can’t separate the gift from the giver.

Whereas Kim looks for salvation in her writing, her estranged father, the historian Harold Lystrander, pursues a very different course of action. He develops the theory that his daughter must have met her attacker while working at GROUND. His search for clear-cut causes and effects leads him to Rosemary Yates, a social worker who offers sanctuary to illegal immigrants without delving into their distant pasts: We’d rather that the world made sense somehow, and that’s what you’re trying to come up with. Sense. Meaning. Sometimes, Harold, there is no meaning. It is Harold’s own past that eventually comes under scrutiny when Kim questions his actions during Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état. Her speculative account of Harold’s student days in Chile proves to be disturbing for both father and daughter. Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge is an exceptionally well-crafted and ambitious novel. It is as much a novel about Toronto as it is a novel about a larger globalized world. In it, the personal is intertwined with the political, the past with the present, and the familiar with the unexpected. Like all good literature Cities of Refuge ultimately raises more questions than it answers. Still, it is the questions that count.



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