Tag Archives: Anne Michaels

Six Degrees of Separation – from How to Be Both to Mãn

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month’s chain begins with Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, something of a Marmite book. It’s a difficult novel to describe, a dual narrative that features a young girl whose mother has recently died and an Italian Renaissance fresco painter. I’m afraid I gave it up.

I much preferred Smith’s more straightforward The Accidental in which an unknown woman bearing gifts turns up, discombobulating the Smart family who are ensconced in their holiday home.

Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood turns Smith’s idea on its head when a man whose car has broken down knocks on the door of the nearest house only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected.

Perry’s novel is set on the Norfolk Coast, vividly evoked in Jeremy Page’s Salt which sees Pip trying to make sense of his complicated family history which beginning with a man found buried up to his neck in mud

Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces starts with the discovery of a mud-covered boy, found during an archaeological excavation in Poland. Seven-year-old Jakob has fled the Nazis and is taken home to Greece by the archaeologist who discovers him. Michaels’ lyrical novel was a bestseller back in the ‘90s.

Michaels is an award-winning poet as was Helen Dunmore whose Talking to the Dead is a favourite of mine. It tells the story of two sisters, one recovering from a difficult birth which has brought back long-buried memories. It’s a gorgeously poetic book as well as a page-turning thriller.

Some of the most striking descriptions in Dunmore’s novel are of food, as they are in Kim Thúy’s Mãn about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know. Mãn cooks for the émigrés who frequent her husband’s café longing for a taste of home. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella which is also a celebration of language.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a dual-narrative novel, split between the twentieth and fifteenth centuries to a Montreal café serving Vietnamese food to the homesick. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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?