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‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels


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’ 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 restrain myself from underlining 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.

A story of two halves

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 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, particularly as the island is under German occupation.

Later, the pair immigrate to Canada and set up a home in Toronto. Jakob goes to university, falls in love, gets married, and 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.

‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels, first published in 1996, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a novel “with a difference”, adding: “Michaels employs the vocabularies of archaeology, geology, and literature to build a unique sense of personal and political history.”

9 thoughts on “‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels”

  1. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I love her poetry but not quite so keen on her latest novel, The Winter Vault, maybe I will give it another chance but it just didn’t carry me along in the same way as Fugitive Pieces did.


  2. I’ve not read her poetry, but if this novel is anything to go by, I expect it’s rather brilliant.
    I was wondering what Winter Vault was like; I’ll probably wait for the paperback.


  3. I was lucky enough to mooch a copy of this. I want to read her new one, but as I have this one, I will start here. With all those awards and your review to recommend it, I think it’s one I’ll like.


  4. I picked this one up in a charity shop a couple of years ago for £2, so it was definitely a good purchase. It’s not a perfect read, as there are a few holes in the plot, but it’s written in such lush language I couldn’t help but be impressed by it.


  5. I have seen a few reviews of this book and always thought “and?” yours is the first one that has gelled with me and made me annoyed at not picking it up everytime I have seen a second hand copy of the book. Thanks Kim, I think will keep my eyes peeled for this in the future.


  6. It’s one of those books I used to see in all the charity shops and I used to skip over it, mistakenly thinking it was probably slightly trashy, because why else would there be so many donated copies floating around. Then I read a review of it online somewhere — can’t remember where, it must have been about three years ago — and I thought I *really* ought to read it. I then went out and bought the next copy I saw in Oxfam. It sat in my TBR for several years and then I just picked it up by chance last week. It’s superb. Wish I’d read it earlier.


  7. Hey u seem like ur an expert on this book! ive recently read it in my english class and i am kind of confused by the ending. Did Naomi cheat on ben with jacob? why was she all gloomy at the very end? and as for the rest of the book it seems very confusing to me. can you give me a general description of why u think this book is so significant?


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