Fugitive Pieces book cover

Fugitive Pieces book review

There was so much hype about this book when it came out in 1996 that I put off reading it for several years. More than 20, in fact. This was partly because I was in the throes of finishing my own first novel (which came out the following year to no hype whatsoever), and partly because the reviews were so overwhelmingly fulsome I could only assume I’d be disappointed when I read it.

Having finally got around to reading Anne Michaels’ debut novel, I find that to be only partly true. As a novel, it’s disappointing, but as a kind of extended poem it’s nothing less than magical.

The book is divided into two parts: Part One tells the story of Jakob Beer, a renowned poet who, just before his death, has begun writing his memoirs. A child during the Nazi invasion of Poland, he survives the destruction of his village and is found, days later, practically buried in mud, by a Greek geologist named Athos Roussos. Athos takes the boy to Greece and hides him until the end of the war. Haunted by memories of his family – especially his older sister, Bella – Jakob still learns to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, thanks to Athos’ teaching.

When the war ends, Athos and Jakob emigrate to Toronto where Athos teaches and Jakob studies to be a translator. He meets a spirited young woman and marries her, but his obsession with the past eventually comes between them. He leaves his wife and, years later, marries Michaela, a much younger woman. Together, they move to Greece. There, in the old Roussos family home on the island of Idhra, Jakob is able to write, and to finally let go of the past.

Part Two offers up a new protagonist – Ben, a Canadian professor whose parents survived the Holocaust. He has met Jakob, admires his poetry, and is impelled, after Jakob’s death, to travel to Greece to retrieve the poet’s journals. While Jakob was obsessed by dark, terrifying memories of the war, Ben, who wasn’t born at the time, has been raised by parents so deeply damaged by their experiences they cannot offer him any emotional security. As immigrants with a terrifying past, they can never let themselves feel completely safe; their sense of home can be taken from them at any random moment. Ben inherits their insecurity; tragedy, like genetics, is passed from generation to generation.

I said earlier that, for me, the novel is a disappointment. When it comes to fiction, I crave, above all else, a good story. I need characters I can believe in, even if I don’t particularly like them. I want dialogue that’s written the way people speak, even if they’re saying horrible things. And please, please give me action. The action in Fugitive Pieces takes place, for the most part, in the past. It is remembered rather than lived, told to us through the tormented dreams and memory fragments of its protagonist. Much of it is told so obliquely and wrapped in so many layers of metaphor it’s often difficult to know just what is happening.

Critics have described the writing as “lyrical”, “magical” and “incandescent”; they’re right. In fact, the text is saturated with beautiful sentences that could only come from the pen of a poet. Often, however, on reflection, those sentences leave the reader confused:

“If one needs proof of the soul it’s easily found. The spirit is most evident at the point of extreme humiliation.” Really? Or this: “Just as the earth invisibly prepares its cataclysms, so history is the gradual instant”.

The language of metaphor carries on into the dialogue of the characters: “Some stones are so heavy only silence helps you carry them”. And again: “Koumbaros, we are lightning rods for time”. It would be lovely if people spoke like this. For the most part, they don’t. But every character in Fugitive Pieces speaks like a poet – or rather, like the poems in Anne Michaels’ head.

I found myself wishing for a cleaner narrative arc. The problem with the book, although it was heresy to say it when it came out, and may still raise hackles in certain quarters, it doesn’t really work as a novel. As a poem, yes . . . a lyrical meditation on loss and the legacy of war, absolutely. It is, as has been said, “gorgeously written”and “exquisitely fabricated”. The prose, however, gets in the way of the story.

Fugitive Pieces simply doesn’t have the platform, the framework on which to build a story. I kept being reminded of Gertrude Stein’s description of Los Angeles: “There’s no there there”. The narrative structure, such as it is, is puzzling, in that it’s designed to continually deflect the reader from the main characters, the ones you should care about. Always a fan of a good digression, I find it confusing to be taken, suddenly and without warning, to Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition or, out of nowhere, a passage on the Catalan Atlas, which seems to have nothing to do with the story. And the shift, two-thirds of the way through the novel, to the story of Ben, doesn’t really work.

Michaels’ writing is never less than powerful. And much of it is beautiful. I kept making notes of sentence fragments that moved me:

“…history only goes into remission, while it continues to grow in you until you’re silted up and can’t move. And you disappear into a piece of music, a chest of drawers, perhaps a hospital record or two, and you slip away, forsaken even by those who claimed to love you the most”.

Beautiful, right? Although, like so much of the book, I don’t honestly understand it.