1001 books, Anne Michaels, Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Greece, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Fugitive Pieces’ by Anne Michaels

FugitivePieces

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.

Author, Book review, Canada, Carol Shields, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Unless’ by Carol Shields

Unless

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 320 pages; 2003.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002, Unless is an unusual story about a 44-year-old woman coming to terms with a family tragedy.

Reta Winters normally happy existence as the mother of three daughters, “marriage” to a successful doctor and growing success as a novelist and translator is shattered when her eldest daughter, Norah, suddenly withdraws from the world. No one is quite sure why Norah, an intelligent 19-year-old, has dropped out of college nor why she has started sitting on a street corner in Toronto wearing a sign around her neck that reads “goodness”.

Reta, disturbed by this apparently unexplainable turn of events, tries to continue life as normal, socialising with her friends and keeping up a veil of normalcy for the benefit of her two younger daughters. As a much-wanted distraction, she buries herself in her writing. But even that illusion of escapism begins to fall apart when her very hands-off editor dies and a younger, more domineering editor takes over.

On the surface Shield’s story is deceptively simple. But the narrative is actually quite clever. There are three strands — Reta’s ongoing quest for normalcy despite the puzzling behaviour of Norah; her book writing in which we, the reader, are introduced to her characters and her creative processes; and a series of letters in which Reta rails against the society she feels is to blame for her daughter’s problems. These are all woven seamlessly together, so it’s hard to know where Reta’s real life intersects with her creative life.

While this is an interesting, easy-to-read novel with a satisfying conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel that a writer writing about writing was a slightly cheap trick, something Shields herself alludes to on more than one occasion.

Author, Bantam, Book review, Elizabeth McGregor, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Ice Child’ by Elizabeth McGregor

IceChild

Fiction – paperback; Bantam; 431 pages; 2001.

Elizabeth McGregor’s The Ice Child is two stories within a story.

The first, set in modern day times, is about a young female journalist, Jo Harper, who falls in love with an arctic adventurer, Douglas Marshall. When Douglas is killed in a tragic accident, Jo is left to bring up their child alone. The child later falls ill and desperately needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. The one person who may be compatible is Douglas’s son, John, from his first marriage.

But John, who has fallen out with Jo, has disappeared and is nowhere to be found. He has a special interest in the 1847 Franklin expedition to the Arctic and, it is believed, may be in the area trying to uncover the last traces of that expedition.

This ties together very nicely with the second story, which describes the plight of the fateful Franklin expedition as the two ships, Terror and Erebus, and their crews cut their way through the Arctic ice looking for the north-west passage.

While set more than a century apart, both stories are essentially tales of survival against extraordinary odds.

McGregor weaves together history and drama to create an intriguing novel. Her writing is, at times, incredibly poetic, at others it tends towards melodrama. But, as a whole, this is a lovely multi-layered book, well researched and with an authentic feel. While light, it’s never fluffy, and would make perfect holiday reading for those looking for something a little different.