Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Before starting Anne Michaels’ first novel Fugitive Pieces I’d prepared for an interview with Louis De Bernières by rereading his novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and then his new book, Imagining Alexandria: poems in memory of Konstantinos Kavafis. The latter is a book of poems that, in true homage to the Greek poet Kavafis, read like prose. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a novel that climaxes with the Nazi massacre of Italian soldiers on the Greek island of Cephallonia. A few pages into Fugitive Pieces, I realised I was holding something that fuses both: a poetic novel about a boy haunted by Nazi horrors.
The poetic element is not a surprise. Michaels is a poet by trade. From the mind of Jakob, a seven-year-old Polish boy who flees his home after his parents and sister are taken prisoner, she grows paragraph after paragraph of splendid writing. Open the book at random and you’ll likely find a line that feels plucked from an epic of Ancient Greece. ‘Grief requires time. If a chip of stone radiates its self, its breath, so long, how stubborn might be the soul.’
After his greatest terror comes Jakob’s most blessed luck. He is rescued by a Greek man named Athos who takes him first to Athens, then to Toronto. Just as Michaels’ book marries genres, so her hero welds disciplines. Geology and poetry; botany and languages; archaeology and music. Common to all his work, and to the novel, is the immensity of the mind and memory and the churning of time. ‘Sixteen years a girl and two hours a woman, that’s how Greece wakes from winter.’ Weather is another powerful character and the preoccupation of Ben, a young man who searches for Jakob’s poetry the way Jakob searches for his sister Bella. Can either of them give up the manhunt? Will they accept any help along the way?
Fugitive Pieces is as rich and powerful as a storm, as assured as limestone. Like the elements it describes it will endure and endure.