Anne Michaels’s new novel opens on a battlefield in France in 1917, as John lies wounded in the snow. The dozens of short passages, some as concise as two words (“Memory seeping”), capture John’s experience, both past and present, with such painful beauty that his life is both observed and felt. This style and effect is sustained by Michaels (Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault) throughout the 12 chapters of this exquisite novel.
Held ranges widely across time and place, moving back and forth, sometimes in what appear to be odd shifts; but then the pieces connect and the story branches in a new direction that becomes an affirmation of a previous narrative, as the descendants of John and his wife Helena are revealed, along with various vital friendships. People move around Europe and England for various reasons: to go to war, to escape persecution, to find work. Love is what holds individuals together and makes life bearable in such terrible circumstances as the Great War. Though the story ranges from the early 1900s into the 21st century, the novel nevertheless manages to capture completely the lives of characters with a remarkable economy of words.
As the 20th century unfolds, the lives of women change. For example, in the section called “River Orwell, Suffolk, 1984,” John and Helena’s granddaughter, Mara, is a doctor who travels to war-torn places, a professional choice that is in counterpoint to John’s combatant role. But change is slow; in “Highcliffe, Dorset, 1912,” Marie Curie flees to England under her own name, Maria Skłodowska, to escape the vitriol of those who think she has stolen her husband’s glory. She stays with her best friend Hertha Ayrton, an English physicist, whose suffragist daughter is in prison. Even as women’s circumstances gradually change, as evidenced by their participation in science and social protest, their lives are lived against the constant backdrop of conflict and war across the globe.
The characters’ origins and connections also shift. Mara’s father, Peter, comes from a wealthy Italian family that gains its riches by making military uniforms, but Peter eventually sells his stake and moves to London, where he meets Anna, John and Helena’s daughter, in a lineup for a concert. Paavo, a composer, and his wife, Sofia, leave Estonia because of restrictions placed on what Paavo can do by the Russian occupiers. Their son, Aimo, meets Anna’s granddaughter because of a book.
The arts – music, literature, and all forms of visual art – matter. John, who reopens his studio after the war, considers photography as a means of creating a historical record until dead people appear in the portraits he takes; these ghosts give solace to their loved ones. There’s no explanation, except for a comment that Hertha makes in another context: “Science can never determine if there is something beyond flesh and bone because that inquiry is inadmissible.” Given that the first lines of the novel are, “We know life is finite. Why should we believe death lasts forever?” it’s no surprise that Held offers many opportunities for the contemplation of both life and death, the material and intangible.
There is a profound richness to this novel. The use of third-person narration is as deft as the content is intense and complex; the two are inextricable. The narrative creates a sense of intimacy normally best achieved with the use of a first-person narrator. Michaels blends the abstract and the concrete to effect immersion into a character’s physical world and mind. For example, the precariousness of John’s situation on the battlefield can be felt – the cold, the mist, the pain – but the essence of thought prevails: “Perhaps the most important things we know cannot be proven.” The use of sentence fragments throughout the novel, but most particularly in the first chapter, creates powerful images, but the narrative momentum never falters.
Just as the characters are held by their love for others, readers are safely held in the utterly tactile and emotional embrace of this incredible novel. The imagery of cold snow and fog plays against the warmth of the human heart even when the world offers duplicity and destruction. To be held, whether literally or in memory, is to be alive.