Winnipeg Review
Posted: March 31, 2011
SanctuaryLine/Cities of Refuge
Full length

Book Reviews

Reviewed and abecedaried by Victor Enns

After the children go home I am left with two books, Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line and Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge. Both come with handsome book jackets with yellow as a key colour carrying the now-ubiquitous Ancient Forest Friendly logo, and quotes from Ontario newspapers on the back. Neither has any prize short-list or win stickers to certify value for money on the front. The bicycle on Cities and the butterfly on Sanctuary both communicate a sense of fragility, and one would think the images were chosen for the potential appeal to target readers. It’s a man’s bicycle. I show my age by thinking bicycles have genders. (1) Reading the trades you’d think I’m one of the last ten men on earth buying and reading books.

I’ll be wanting to preserve the book jackets, though I won’t MacTac them like my father did. Unwrapped both  are plain linen-coloured hard covers, and even with the printing  on the spine,  could still be easily mistaken for each other on my bookshelves. Don’t think I’m a collector. I’m a reader, one who intensely enjoys the actual physicality of a book in my hands, as I do a proper scotch glass with some heft to it, with three fingers of scotch carefully poured over just the right number of ice cubes.

After reading both novels in my favourite Danish rocking chair listening to the new Radio 2, it was almost spring, and I thought. Well, I thought there were interesting similarities and some differences between the two novels.  I thought a review, but without racing the two books to see which might end up a book club selection, and which might be remaindered. Comparing two books to each other is like comparing your children, not something you really do if you can avoid it, certainly not if you know word is going to get back to them.  I was at a loss, but only momentarily, as to what I might be looking for, when I realized the alphabet offers structure and solution.

* * *


Abandon, abandonment, abandonado; (See also Absent, father.) (See also Men, behaving badly.) Fathers die, leave, children suffer collateral damage. Kim. Teo. Liz. “There is no one left. I live in a landscape where absence confronts me daily. But my uncle’s disappearance – his departure to nowhere – was the most dramatic, and the most deliberate: the most final abdication of them all.” (early in Sanctuary Lines)

Afghanistan made several appearances in Canadian fiction in 2010, including Kim’s dead sister. (See also The Matter with Morris, David Bergen.)

Ambiguity, each story about its foreigners. (See also Other).


Butterflies, Monarch; Nabokov would have loved Urquhart’s description of the butterfly tree. No butterflies I can remember in Cities of Refuge, though I can remember Butterflies are Free.

Betrayal, enough to go round in both books, more personal and intimate in Sanctuary, more political and violent in Cities, both devastating with a slow reveal.

Bicycle, Kim rides. No Italian thieves.


Country, going to the, southern Ontario, Helpless. Not rural and treeless like in Manitoba, but woodsy like Neil Young, and Bruce Cockburn with lakes like Toronto magazine features. Liz Crane (Sanctuary Line) and Kim Lystander (Cities of Refuge) retreat, take stock, recover.      

Character; flawed all of them, but well drawn, lots of show and I won’t tell.

Chile, (See also Disappearance); Harold, Kim’s father, was there, and it’s his Achilles. The Coup and Allende’s death were the work of the CIA—proven later, their logo shiny on Pinochet’s tanks and helicopters with malignant magicians making people disappear.

Cities, Levitical; the Levites were given forty-eight cities in which they could live, and of these, according to the Torah, six were “cities of refuge” where a manslayer could reside if he committed manslaughter, rather than murder, for which the punishment was death.




Divorce; studies show that children of divorced parents are less likely to finish post secondary studies. Kim drops out, because she allows speculation and story into her research, a little designated self-reflexive authority.

Disappearance; there goes the summer uncle pulling up his pants, buckling his belt, his wife mad as hell, his niece taking it all in. There go Harold’s compadres while he smokes a cigarette. There goes Harold off the bridge.

Dolores, derived from the Spanish dolores (sorrows, aches). The name, bestowed in honour of the Virgin Mary, “Maria de los Dolores” (Mary of the Sorrows), makes reference to the seven sorrows of Mary in her relationship with her son.


Erase; (See Disappearance).

Extinction;… is relentless, and it is flourishing. I believe it will win in the end.” (early in Sanctuary Line)


Foreshadowing, invisible in first reading of either novel; oppressive in the second reading of Sanctuary Line, a long wank; mission creep in Cities of Refugees, father, not father getting a lot of air, the water, under the bridge.


Game: the victor and the victim play a little game. (See Victor, Victim.)

Genocide; Darfur, and all those North African weapons from which refugees are running, when all we have is bad water, gas in a bag.


Helm, Michael, author of Cities of Refuge (2010), The Projectionist (Giller short-list) and In the Place of Last Things (Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Book short-list). An editor at Brick, he teaches creative writing at York University in Toronto.

History; catches up with historian Harold.

Heroines; (See Women).


Illegal immigrants; a cargo of Mexican fruit-pickers unloaded on the Toronto tarmac, ripe for the picking; refused refugees refusing to leave their cities of refuge.

Ian McEwen; tone-perfect. Sanctuary Line reminds me of On Chesil Beach, Cities of Refuge of Saturday. All revolve on a single instant, the beat of the butterfly wings we hear so much about, and characters are forever changed.


Joke;  “The speaker had a shaved head and wire glasses. He was trying to look like Foucault…. ‘In winter term we’re always evacuating into the snow,’ said the Foucault. ‘I never invigilate without my parka. It’s all part of the dialectic of external influence and local adaptation.’” (Cities of Refuge)


Keywords; no e-books were harmed, no search engines employed, the I-Ching was not thrown, words chosen randomly are my own.


Leave; what men do.

Liz Crane, narrator and protagonist of Sanctuary Line.


Men, behaving badly; think about it. In fiction, are there any other kind?

Metaphor; “‘Something like the resurrection only makes sense as metaphor. Why it’s powerful, historically.’

‘It’s powerful because it’s the truth. Let us not mock God with metaphor.’

‘Is that from one of Father Andre’s sermons?’

‘It’s from a poem.’ (2)

‘And here I thought poetry was a metaphor.’

‘Not this poem. I’ll send it to you.’” (Cities of Refuge)

“Search and rescue is perfect for poetry, she said with what I see now as a surprising amount of instinct. Think of it as metaphor.” (Sanctuary Line)


Narrative, (See Story).


Orchards; oh I don’t know, echoes of Eden, barren after the fall of a man, now Liz’s domain and a butterfly sanctuary.

Other; contemporary fiction can’t live without bonking the reader on the head with this useful, if worn, idea. Helm opens his novel with a rather unfortunate prologue which starts “We watch the foreign girl.” Italics are the authors and go on for two pages, just to be sure we know we are us and they are them, “consigned to the dark.” (Cities of Refuge)


Precise; which is more?

Poll: Which tool is more precise?

  • Language (50% of Votes)
  • Violence (50% of Votes)


Quixotic, defending refugees, whatever their history, and tagging butterflies.


Rebar; rips through Kim’s thigh as she saves herself but falls into the dig.


Sex; none described in either novel for the prurient reader (See also Shame). You’d be better off with Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin for cheap erotic thrills.

Shame; in these books it is erased or evaded (can’t just summarize the plots!) by Uncle Stanley (Sanctuary Line), and Harold (Cities of Refuge).

Simile, “For a minute she held her mother’s hand, her thumb in Marian’s palm as if pressing into it a lucky coin.” (Cities of Refuge)

Story; Uncle Stanley (Sanctuary Line) loves to tell them, the refugees need them to be consistent (Cities) both parties rewrite when the honesty’s too much, neither are saved.

Suicide, Harold, Teo.


Teo; Dolores’ son, a gift from God, a gift from Stanley, Liz’s cousin.

Trashing out; growth industry with foreclosures, often employing ‘illegals’ in Toronto. (See also Metaphor.) (See also Paul Auster’s Sunset Park.)


Urquhart, Jane, author of Sanctuary Line (2010), A Map Of Glass (2005), The Stone Carvers (2001). In the last century she was the author of five books of fiction and four books of poetry. She has received the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She lives in Northumberland County, and sometimes Ireland.

University, a sanctuary for Harold.


Victim, lies a little about the pain.

Victor, makes up the rest and does the same. (3)

Violence, vivid and harrowing, used as needed in Cities of Refuge. (See also Precise.)


Women, stronger than those in Lake Wobegon, all of them heroines, saving themselves.

Work; white folks don’t, illegals whenever they can.


Xenophobe; that would be most of us, afraid of people different than ourselves, of « other », but Harold fer sure, lets it bring him down.


Yes; buy and read these two books.


Zealot, Rosemary at GROUND. The Group for the Undocumented.

(1) It’s the female protagonist, Kim, who is the rider.

(2) John Updike, “Seven Stanzas for Easter”.

(3) Plagiarizing myself.

Cities of Refuge | McClelland & Stewart |  408 pages | cloth | $33 | ISBN #978-0771040399

Sanctuary Line | McClelland & Stewart |  288 pages | cloth | $30 | ISBN #978-0771086465


  1. Jonathan Ball

Posted April 3, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

Did you buy that Cities of Refuge from Aqua Books? I think you purchased the copy I sold them.


  1. Lynn

Posted March 31, 2011 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

I have no clue what kind of review this is but it kept me engaged to the bitter end.

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