To whom do we offer refuge — and why?
After a life that rubbed up against the century’s great events in New York City, Mexico, and Montreal, 96-year-old Cassandra MacCallum is surviving well enough, alone on her island, when a young Burmese woman contacts her, claiming to be kin. Curiosity, loneliness, and a slender filament of hope prompts the old woman to accept a visit. But Nang’s story of torture and flight provokes memories in Cass that peel back, layer by layer, the events that brought her to this moment — and forces her, against her will, to confront the tragedy she has refused for half a century. Could her son really be Nang’s grandfather? What does she owe this girl, who claims to be stateless because of her MacCallum blood? Drawn, despite herself, into Nang’s search for refuge, Cass struggles to accept the past and find a way into whatever future remains to her.
About the author
Merilyn Simonds is the author of 17 books, including Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, a 2017 Globe Best Book, The Holding, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and the Canadian classic work of creative nonfiction, The Convict Lover, a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Her work has been anthologized and published internationally. In 2017, Project Bookmark Canada unveiled a plaque to honor the place of The Convict Lover in Canada’s literary landscape. She grew up in South America and now divides her time between Kingston, Ontario, and Mexico.
Excerpt: Refuge: A Novel (by (author) Merilyn Simonds)
The First Day
You can’t lie to me. Oh, people have tried. All the usual prevarications, and some they make up just for me. Take a picture and there’s a chance you’ll get away with it. But even then, more often than not, I’ll feel that flutter in my gut, that shiver behind my eyelids when I spot a lie pencilled on a face, and the words will come spilling out of my mouth before I have a chance to think them: That’s not the truth.
Not that it’s ever done me much good. What’s the point of knowing every time someone is trying to put one over on you? It’s like having the gift of seeing flatulence. It shows you something you already suspect, something you don’t want to know too much about.
That’s what I’m thinking as I sit here in the verandah of my cabin, watching the girl row across the narrow moat of water that separates my small island from the farm where I was born. A grey moth with a smudge of rust on its nether parts moves slowly across the sagging screen in the opposite direction. I squint past it into the distance and wonder just what kind of lies this young woman will try on me. Because if I am sure of one thing after ninety-six years, it is that I have pretty much heard them all.
The only one who can lie to me is me.
Her first email caught me off guard.
Subject: Please help
Date: 19 April 2001 22:01:28 MDT (CA)
I am Miss Nang Aung Myaing, I am age 23. My country Burma. My grand father is A Pho Charlie O’Brien. His country Canada.
Please I have very suffered to come your country. I contact now to prove my blood.
Please you help.
I get a lot of these. Please, I am stranded in London. Please, I am a poor farmer in Nigeria. Please. So polite. I like that. And personal. That’s the trick. I always read them, sometimes more than once. It passes the time.
But this one was different. I circled the cursor around the name. His name. How could they know?
Of course they know. Nothing is held close anymore. Everybody knows everything. Or they think they do. There must be a thousand Charlie O’Briens alive in the world. More, laid in the ground.
Miss. Ha! More likely a hairy man smoking cheroots, spitting as he pecked away in some basement, setting traps for old women.
Well, let him try. I clicked the little trash can, and with a whoosh the email was sucked into oblivion.
But she didn’t give up.
Subject: Help me please
Date: 25 April 2001 23:05:18 MDT (CA)
You receive email I send?
I find you name on website Galería Imago. Photograph little boy is grand father. You make photograph. You mother, yes?
Urgent I visit. Go back, I die.
Please. I have present you from A Pho Charlie.
Miss Nang Aung Myaing
For the better part of a week, I argued with myself, until my need to know won out over my better judgment.
Subject: Re: Help me please
Date: 30 April 2001 06:47:05 MDT (CA)
What do you have?
Subject: Re: Re: Help me please
Date: 30 April 2001 6:49:01 MDT (CA)
I come show.
Where you stay?
Miss Nang Aung Myaing
A moment of weakness made me spell out the directions to the island. Loneliness, the old woman’s curse. Well, I may be old and weak, but I’m not entirely stupid. Not yet.
Curious. I’ll admit to that.
The girl looks ordinary enough. Not like a real estate agent or a social worker or a thug. That’s one good thing. Or three, depending how you count.
And she’s tidy. She’s pulling the old rowboat up on the rocks pretty much where I like it.
Scrawny, though. Doesn’t block much of the view. She’s got her hair pulled up into a ponytail, like I used to wear in the fifties. Looks like a boy in those blue jeans. No hips, but the shirt is so tight I can see her little breasts, round and high as suction cups.
She takes nothing from the boat — no suitcase. So she doesn’t mean to stay. Another good thing.
Ah. That hump on her back is a daypack. Whatever she has for me is tucked inside.
Smaller than an iron lung. Bigger than a tin of salve. A game we used to play.
I shuffle my chair back into the shadows. The verandah is screened in and heaped with junk: oars, tripods, winter boots and coats, things I’ve been meaning to get rid of. Nowhere to sit, but that doesn’t matter as long as I can wheel myself through breaks in the debris to my favourite lookouts. One at the far end with a view of the lake. This one, by the screen door, where I can see the woods that shield the lake from the farmhouse. Where I watch for strangers coming up the path.
Halfway along, she stops, shifts the daypack to her other shoulder, and carries on.
So. Small but heavy.
Heavy as the weight of memory that holds me here.
“Do you believe what you see with your eyes or what you see with your heart? That question, raised by Simonds’ layered and nuanced account of an extraordinary life, will provoke thought in skeptics and believers alike.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Against the backdrop of almost a century of Canadian, Mexican, and American history, Simonds explores the sometimes unknown, astonishing, and enduring-against-all-odds connections between siblings, parents, and children that span generations and the globe.” — Booklist
“Real people and events are woven into this work of fiction, enhancing its intrigue and authenticity without removing the spotlight from Cass. Cass’s obsession with scientific experimentation and examination … infuses the story with detail, insight, and depth.” — Foreword Reviews
“Artful and allusive.” — Quill & Quire
“A silk scarf of a novel, which catches on far-flung places and deep heartaches, and gathers them into an old woman’s gnarled and feisty memory. Merilyn Simonds shows how mysterious we remain to ourselves and to each other after even a century of living.” — Elizabeth Hay, author of Giller Prize-winning Late Nights on Air