Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Publishing; 304 pages; 1997.
Sometimes I find myself unexpectedly reading one novel after another that share similar themes. I think this is what you call serendipity. Or maybe it’s sheer coincidence. But whatever the case, I couldn’t help but compare Anne Michaels’ 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces with the book I’d just finished, Hugo Hamilton’s more recent Disguise.
Both books tell the stories of young Polish boys, orphaned during the Second World War, who start afresh but are haunted by events of the past. But where Hamilton’s novel fails to really pack any emotional punch, perhaps because of the understated writing style and his emphasis on telling not showing, Michaels delivers a hugely poignant story that reverberates long after you reach the final page.
There’s something exceptional about Michaels use of language, which conveys the precise mood of a particular moment using prose that reads like poetry, not surprising given she’s an award-winning poet. Here’s an example:
White aspens make black shadows, a photographic negative. The sky wavers between snow and rain. The light is a dull clang, old, an echo of light.
And so it goes. Admittedly, I found this lyrical use of language a little off-putting to begin with, but once I got used to the rhythms and the pacing and let it wash over me I was held in its sway. In fact, I had to do everything in my power not to underline every second passage because I’d end up spending more time vandalising my book than reading it.
But what about the story, I hear you say. Well, it’s just as beautiful and haunting, really. It’s divided into two parts.
The first is narrated by Jakob Beer, a seven-year-old Jewish boy, who witnesses the Nazis storming his house, killing his parents and older sister. He flees and hides himself in the boggy marshes of a nearby wood, where he is later discovered by a Greek geologist, Athos, who takes him back to the sun-filled Greek island of Zakynthos and brings him up as his own son. Here, Jakob is given unconditional love and is schooled in everything from the English language to archaeology. The horrors of the war are never far away though, particular as the island is under German occupation.
Later, the pair immigrate to Canada, and set up home in Toronto. Jakob goes to university, falls in love, gets married, becomes a poet and translator. But all the while he mourns the loss of his parents and, in particular, his sister, whose ghostly presence he feels long into his old age.
The second part is narrated by Ben, a 20-something married man, who has long admired Jakob’s poetry, and goes on a mission to find Jakob’s long lost personal journals. It is this second part that allows the reader to view Jakob from a different perspective, to see how a certain kind of sadness has permeated his life, and how he has long struggled to find his rightful place in the world.
In many ways this book is about Jakob’s desire to put the past behind him in order to move into the future. It’s a heartfelt tale about one man’s search for happiness in the face of such enormous personal loss.
Fugitive Pieces won the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1996, the Trillium Book Award in 1996, the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997 and the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1997.