I received this book from ECW Press. All opinions are my own.
Refuge is a novel about, well, refuge. How do we seek refuge? How do we give it? Who do we offer refuge to?
At the centre of the novel is Cass. In the present tense of the story, Cass is 96-years-old, living alone on an island, content in her own isolation and surrounded by the physical remains of her life and the lives of those she has lived amongst. But Cass has an unexpected visitor – a young woman, a refugee from Burma, who claims she is Cass’ great-granddaughter. Despite herself, Cass finds herself interested in the woman’s story and compelled by what she learns.
This present day story is told in alternating chapters with snippets of Cass’ life. Growing up on the farm where she still lives. The youngest daughter and her father’s protege. Young Cass is vibrant and adventurous, curious about the natural world around her. She studies as a nurse and ends up in Mexico. Here Simonds’ skill really shines as she brings Mexico in the early 20th century to life. The smells, colours, and sounds are bright and vibrant and the reader falls in love with the place just as Cass does. The contrast between a marketplace or party in Mexico and the steady, more subtle beauty of the farm comes out strongly and it’s easy to see how Cass’ heart can belong in two places.
(I will say, I’m really tired of every fictional character who goes to Mexico and befriends Frida Kahlo. If Kahlo was really hanging out with so many people she would have had no time to paint.)
Cass returns to America and to New York City, a mother now, and again she builds a new life. As a nurse, she steps into the middle of the polio epidemic and the struggle to find a vaccine. In an effort to protect her son she sounds him back to the family farm to find refuge with the sister she’s never been close to.
Here is where the novel perhaps falters. We see the intimate life that Cass and her son have built together in New York. From Cass’ perspective they are as close as can be, enjoying each other’s company and wanting no one more. Yet a divide grows as Charlie builds another life away from her. Because our perspective is so tight on Cass, I never felt like we were getting a full perspective on what was happening. Since this part of the novel is told in third person, it sometimes felt like information was deliberately being withheld. The separation between mother and son becomes clear when Charlie makes a bold choice and their divide becomes permanent. For the rest of the novel, I waited to learn Charlie’s secret, his motivation for severing himself so fully from his mother. The answer never comes. Perhaps there was no answer to learn. Perhaps this is the most painfully honest part of the story. People drift away from one another and life and tragedy interrupts before the tale is concluded. At least, the reader knows what Cass knows and Cass never learns the whole story.
Simonds leaves a lot unsaid and several loose ends for her characters. While this can be frustrating, it also feels honest and realistic. Cass is 96-years-old, she knows her years are limited, and she has lived longer than she expected. Her past is much more vibrant than her present but she is given an unexpected choice as to how she will live out her remaining years. There are clues as to what she will choose but it does present an interesting question for the reader. Who would you offer refuge to and why?