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Fugitive Pieces

by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces, a first novel from poet Anne Michaels, is a curious hybrid of fiction and threnody. In its opening scene, set in Poland during World War II, a little Jewish boy emerges from “the miry streets of a drowned city” where he has been hiding from the Nazis. A man working on excavating the site, a Greek geologist, rescues the boy, whose family has been killed, and together they return to Greece to wait out the war. On the surface this is a miraculous story. Orphaned boy emerges like Tollund Man and is adopted by kind academic. The two eventually reach post-war Toronto.

Michaels, through her protagonists, digs deep in the soil of memory and loss, and exposes the layers of emotion surrounding traumatic events. In so doing she makes it clear that survival and happiness are far from synonymous. Athos, the Greek, a gentle man and a scholar, does his best to rear and protect Jakob Beer, his young “godson.” But he cannot rid him of his nightmares, his memories. The man has his own torments, and one of the profound lessons of this resonant book is how tantalizingly little we can know about those we think we know best.

Since the uniting thread is the Holocaust, Michaels’ characters are often smaller than the landscape of horrors they inhabit. Sometimes they seem sketched rather than rounded; a series of finely etched gestures. Ben, a Toronto-born Jew, child of Holocaust survivors, seared by his parents’ fears as he grows up, also suffers from this sense of being more abstract than real. Weighted by the past, often anchored by intellect and erudition, these people are fascinating and overwhelming by turns.

Perhaps the greatest strength here is Michaels’ wondrous evocation of place. She makes unfamiliar landscapes in Poland and Greece intimately real. She shows how storytelling keeps the spirit alive in the worst of times – Athos and young Jakob spend much of the war entranced by the adventures of Captain Scott at the South Pole. Connections between present and past abound: when Jakob sees a reproduction of a watercolour done in Antarctica, it’s as if the painting is his own “memory of the spirit world” that haunts his dreams.

Toronto is approached as if it were an archeological dig. Ravines, the overflowing banks of the Humber River, layers of rock and layers of history: Michaels’ great achievement is to make us see the city as if for the first time. Readers may think of Jane Urquhart and her magical explorations when reading Michaels; she shows a similar ability to part the curtains of time and create living beings from history.