Tag Archives: Novels by poets

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?

The End We Start From: Megan Hunter: Hopes springs eternal

Cover imageSometimes I read for the storytelling, sometimes for the writing. With The End We Start From I suspected it was going to be the latter – Megan Hunter is a poet and in my experience poets often write beautifully crafted novels. The book also sounded as if it fell into dystopian territory, something I usually avoid like the plague, no pun intended, but once I’d stared reading I found myself drawn into Hunter’s story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives.

Our narrator is in labour with just a few panicky friends in attendance, her husband somewhere up a mountain not expecting their child to make its entrance yet. All goes well but three days later our narrator, her husband R and their child Z must leave: the waters that have been inexorably rising are now threatening to engulf London. They flee north, taken in by R’s parents. As the flood spreads the country is seized by panic. R and his parents’ foraging trips take longer and longer until, one day, only R and his father return, then several weeks later, only R. Caught up in the tiny intimate world of mother and newborn, the news an irritating TV buzz, our narrator worries that her milk will fail. As the situation deteriorates, R is persuaded to drive over the border to Scotland where they first live in their car, then a refugee camp which R tolerates for a few months before leaving. At the urging of her new friends, our narrator moves on again, eventually finding shelter on an island until she decides that it’s time to find R. Throughout the catastrophe, Z has thrived, meeting each developmental milestone and adapting to whatever changes the world throws at him.

The End We Start From is a mere 140 pages in length – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence – but it’s an immensely powerful piece of work. The language is arresting, sometimes stark, occasionally lyrical. Flashes of humour shine out. Hard not to fill this review with a stream of quotes but I’ll try to make do with a few to give you a flavour: ‘G is nowhere, and the kitchen is full of her, her face shining out from the kettle, the shape of her waist wrapped around jars’; ’Days are thin now, stretched so much that time pours through them’; ‘At night, my stomach reaches up to ask for more’. Loosely, and intermittently, woven through our narrator’s story is that of the Ark, a thread which didn’t work so well for me. I found myself not reading those sections so carefully, eager to return to the narrator and Z. This is a highly ambitious first novel but Hunter carries it off beautifully – her use of language is captivating, the risky structure tackled with great confidence. It ends on a ringing note of optimism.

Blasts from the Past: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (1993)

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 in as many hands as I could.

David Malouf is one of those writers who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything: fiction, poetry, libretti – he’s mastered them all. My favourite novel by him – so far – is the Booker Prize shortlisted, IMPAC Award-winning Remembering Babylon. It’s both an examination of the arrival of an outsider in a small, close-knit but barely established community and a commentary on colonialism, filled with vibrantly poetic images.

On a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century, a strange and ragged figure dances out of the Australian bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with aborigines. At first his eccentricities are greeted with the amusement of novelty but in time the settlement becomes riven with suspicion. As the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment which they perceive as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aborigines, lie? As Gemmy tries to find a place for himself in the community, friendships are strained to breaking point, brutality begins to surface but one family finds a new way to look at the world.

Gemmy’s arrival threatens the settlers’ fragile identities who Malouf has described as ‘a community that wouldn’t otherwise have held together but for their whiteness and Europeanness’. Strangers as they are in a strange land, they are faced with a man who seems to be is neither truly British nor Australian but a disturbing amalgamation of the two, a worrying prospect of what might become of them and their children. Every word counts in this slim dazzlingly vivid, novella. It’s a superb book, as novels by poets so often are, and it seems particularly apt right now.

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