Blasts from the Past: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Fugitive Pieces is one of those excellent books that sold satisfyingly well when I was a bookseller. I can’t remember why – there was no Richard and Judy at that point and it’s a properly literary novel – but it was a pleasure to see it flying out of the door. Its appeal for me was partly its premise but I’ve always had a particularly soft spot for novels by poets which Anne Michaels is. Written in richly beautiful language and studded with striking images, it’s a profound meditation upon the nature of loss, love and the healing power of words.

Athos Roussos discovers a mud-covered boy while excavating an archaeological site in Poland, and takes the child home to the Greek island of Zakynthos. Seven-year-old Jakob Beer has escaped the Nazis, forced to listen to the cries of his parents as they were murdered while he lay hidden in a closet. Athos nourishes Jakob with knowledge and words, applying balm to the wounds inflicted by such devastating loss. After the war they move to Toronto but when his beloved mentor dies and his brief marriage fails, Jakob returns to Greece to work as a translator and write poetry. When he meets Michaela, the possibility of happiness finally becomes a reality only to be snuffed out by a traffic accident. After Jakob’s death Ben, the child of concentration camp survivors, sets out in search of Jakob’s journals.

Michaels has written only one other novel as far as I know, The Winter Vault, published thirteen years after this one. It’s a fine piece of fiction but no match for the brilliance of Fugitive Pieces, at least for me. I wonder if she’ll write another.

 What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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31 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)”

  1. Oh, I loved this book too when I read it about 10 years ago. Like Madamebibliophile above my memories of it have faded, so your review is a nice reminder of the detail.

  2. Amazingly, I absolutely hate this book. The poeticism that works so well for so many reads to me like woolly waffle! But then disagreeing about books is part of the joy of having Literary Opinions.

          1. Yeah, sometimes I think about how many books have been forgotten and it gives me a sort of existential vertigo.

          2. I remember feeling that way when I visited a great English language bookshop in Krakow a few years ago. It was as if all the hardback fiction I’d ever returned in my bookselling career had turned up in Poland to haunt me!

          3. Pahahaha – perhaps someone’ll write a book about it. The Book of Forgotten Books. (Actually, probably someone already has. Borges?)

  3. This title sounds so familiar that I even wonder if I have a copy in a box in America. The plot doesn’t ring a bell, though, so I know I haven’t read it. Your Blasts from the Pasts are always reliable for me, so I will certainly be giving this one a go.

    1. I’m not entirely sure I’d remember it in such detail myself if I hadn’t already written about it years ago but I do recall how struck I was by the images she uses

  4. Not a book I’d ever heard of before, but it does sound very impressive – achingly beautiful in some respects. I suspect it would really suit a friend of mine with an interest in this kind of story. She may well have read it at some point, I’ll have to check.

    1. Michaels’ use of language and imagery are the features I found so striking about the novel, Jacqui. I hope your friend likes it if she hasn’t come across it before.

    1. I bet if you’d been looking a few years after publication you’d have spotted a copy easily, Annabel. Of course, now I’m wondering what sort of reader you were then.

  5. This is one of the books which has stayed with me over the years since I read it. Michaels’ use of language was so beautiful and yet there was also a subtle strength to it. Amazing book.

  6. Aiyiyi how I loved this book. It was just so beautiful. I remember copying out passages and just repeating them, like prayers. It was also made into a film afterwards, some years later, also artsy and not-for-every-viewer. She has published since. but not fiction. More hybrid-y stuff. Like Sebald, kind of.

  7. If memory serves, she spent nine years on Fugitive Pieces and never showed the work in progress to anyone while she worked on it. So I imagine it was like distilling a piece of her soul. (So maybe another book simply can’t be the same.)

  8. I’ve just finished the book. I’m curious to see what I’ll remember a few years hence, but for now I’m completely under the spell of the writing, the beauty of the images, the restraint in her characters, the weight of all that is felt but not said, the flow from Athos to Jakob to Ben and the way Jakob and Ben’s pasts speak to each other. Such a beautiful, evocative book.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. You’ve summed up beautifully what I loved about the book. I’m sure it will stay with you for sometime. It’s over twenty years since I read it!

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