New York Times Book Review
Extraordinarily magical. . .fierce, deeply unsettling.
Word by blessed word, it is a gorgeously written book.
Elegiac and redemptive, Fugitive Pieces, the first novel by Canadian poet Anne Michaels, is a beautifully written, quietly forceful reminder of "the large human values." A story of decency, compassion and hope under extraordinary duress, it is above all an argument for the healing power of words.
"I did not witness the most important events of my life," says Jakob Beer, the book's central character. While hiding in a cupboard in his family's home in Poland, the 7-year-old overhears the brutal murder of his parents by Nazi soldiers. Jakob escapes, terrified and wild with grief, into the forest. Caked with the mud he uses to camouflage himself, he is discovered by a Greek geologist, Athos Roussos, who smuggles him to Greece under his coat.
The scholarly, gentle Athos hides Jakob through the war years in the sun-drenched, book-lined rooms of his island house and later raises the boy to manhood in Toronto. From Athos, Jakob learns the consoling language of geology: "To go back a year or two was impossible, absurd. To go back millennia -- ah! that was ... nothing." Athos' stories of buried cities, the bravery of Antarctic explorers who perished while sledging fossils back from the South Pole, Bronze Age safety pins and salt cakes used as money are tonic to Jakob's scarred imagination. Haunted by his own terrible history, Jakob is burdened by "images rising in me like bruises": of his parents' murder, of the likely death of his sister, of the suffering of the victims of the war.
The same imagination that tortures Jakob is the instrument of his salvation. Michaels describes Jakob's slow rebirth in evocative, tactile language that recalls Michael Ondaatje. While thinking of the Nazis' mass graves, the bodies covered with only a dusting of soil, he remembers the discovery, in 1942, of the cave paintings of Lascaux: "twenty-six feet below they burst to life in lamplight: the swimming deer, floating horses, rhinos, ibex ... their hides sweating iron oxide and manganese." Fragments of memory, conversations, details from Athos' stories accrete into a richly depicted psychological landscape that lends credibility not only to Jakob as a character but also to his decision to become a poet. "Write to save yourself," Athos had advised him, "and someday you'll write because you've been saved."
Michaels stumbles only when, in her account of Jakob's second marriage, she insists too much on the healing power of sexual love. Overall, however, Fugitive Pieces moves compellingly toward Jakob's final realization: that a survivor's job is not to remain with the dead, but to survive them. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Searing the mind with stunning images while seducing with radiant prose, this brilliant first novel is a story of damaged lives and the indestructibility of the human spirit. It speaks about loss, about the urgency, pain and ultimate healing power of memory, and about the redemptive power of love. Its characters come to understand the implacability of the natural world, the impartial perfection of science, the heartbreak of history. The narrative is permeated with insights about language itself, its power to distort and destroy meaning, and to restore it again to those with stalwart hearts. During WWII, when Jakob Beer is seven, his parents are murdered by Nazi soldiers who invade their Polish village, and his beloved, musically talented 15-year-old sister, Bella, is abducted. Fleeing from the blood-drenched scene, he is magically saved by Greek geologist Athos Roussos, who secretly transports the traumatized boy to his home on the island of Zakynthos, where they live through the Nazi occupation, suffering privations but escaping the atrocities that decimate Greece's Jewish community. Jakob is haunted by the moment of his parents' death-the burst door, buttons spilling out of a saucer onto the floor, darkness-and his spirit remains sorrowfully linked with that of his lost sister, whose fate anguishes him. But he travels in his imagination to the places that Athos describes and the books that this kindly scholar provides. At war's end, Athos accepts a university post in Toronto, and Jakob begins a new life. Yet he remains disoriented and unmoored, trapped by memory and grief, "a damaged chromosome"-the more so after Athos' premature death. By then, however, Jakob has discovered his mtier as poet and essayist and strives to find in language the meaning of his life. The miraculous gift of a soul mate in his second wife, "voluptuous scholar" Michaela, comes late for Jakob. Their marriage is brief, and ends in stunning irony. The second part of the novel concerns a younger man, Ben, who is profoundly influenced by Jakob's poetry and goes to the Greek island of Idhra in an attempt to find the writer's notebooks after his death. Ben is another damaged soul. The son of Holocaust survivors, he carries their sorrow like a heavy stone. Emotionally maimed and fearful, Ben feels that he was "born into absence... a hiding place, rotted out by grief.'' Yet when it seems that the past will go on wreaking destruction, Jakob's writings, and the example of his life, show Ben the way to acknowledge love and to accept a future. These intertwined stories are related by Canadian poet Michaels in incandescent prose, dark and tender and poetically lyrical. A bestseller in Canada, the novel will make readers yearn to share it with others, to read sentences and entire passages aloud, to debate its message, to acknowledge its wisdom.
Peter Marinker's haunting recording about a Holocaust survivor captures the listener's attention with its melancholy ambiance. Ben, a young professor with his own Holocaust heritage, finds a poetic account of Jakob Beer's recollections of his life since the time his parents were murdered by Nazis when he was only seven years old. These pieces tell how Jakob was found, adopted, and taken to Greece by Athos Roussos, a scientist, scholar, and humanist. After the occupation, they move to Toronto, where Jakob learns the power of language, meets both his wives, and struggles with his memories. Michaels's tale reads like a true survivor story; highly recommended for all audio collections.--Sandy Glover, West Linn P.L., OR
School Library Journal
YA-A survivor of his family's annihilation by the Nazis, young Jakob Beer hides in a Polish forest alone and traumatized, longing for his parents and sister Bella. He stumbles upon a Greek scientist, Athos Roussos, and is smuggled to the Greek island of Zakynthos. The novel, written like a memoir, weaves together Jakob's memories of his family and his life with Athos into a tapestry of pain and eventual healing. Reminiscent of Elie Wiesel's Night (Bantam, 1982), Michaels's language creates haunting images of sorrow, pain, loss, and self-discovery. Jakob becomes a poet and survives both Athos's death and an ill-conceived marriage before he finds love and peace. Ben, a professor who is the child of deeply wounded Holocaust survivors, meets Beer before his death and, through the man's poetry and notes, confronts his own family horrors and finds reconciliation. The memoirs flow back and forth freely and may be difficult for some YAs to follow. However, this is a stunning first novel that attests to the strength of the human spirit.Carol DeAngelo, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA
A moving tale of survival becomes a grave and stately hymn to the revivifying qualities of language and learning in this impressive debut by a Canadian poet.
The main narrator, Jakob Beer, who tells his story at age 60 in 1992, was a Polish survivor of the Holocaust who, after losing his entire family in 1939, was rescued by Antanasios Roussos, a middle-aged scholar and polymath, who took Jakob to safety and raised him on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Jakob's narrative is a rich chronicle of intellectual hungers generously satisfied, as "Athos's tales of geologists and explorers, cartographers and navigators" stimulate his young disciple's active imaginationan imagination also possessed by vivid memories of Jakob's dead parents and sister Bella, who appear to him as both vocal and visible presences. The pair travel to Athens, where Jakob's own insistent memories jostle against stories of that city's wartime sufferings, and thence to Toronto, where "Athos" has been invited to teach, and where he diesleaving Jakob to complete his mentor's masterwork, a study of how the Nazis distorted archaeology to alter the past and "prove" Aryan supremacy. Jakob's life thereafter is devoted to his own writing (he is a gifted poet), to a search for love he never seems quite able to fulfill, and, centrally, to his progression from experiencing "the power of language to destroy to omit to obliterate" to discovering in `"poetry, the power of language to restore." Then, in an only partially successful shift, the novel's last third observes Jakob's later life and his legacy from the viewpoint of a younger friend and admirer, who is himself the child of Holocaust survivors and whose sensitivity to what Jakob's life signifies is aided by his own realization that "Every moment is two moments" (that is, the past is always present in the present).
A stunning work, quite beautifully written, and a lovely homage to the imperiled yet indomitable culture and individuals it celebrates.
From the Publisher
"Features fine performances by actor/directors Neil Munro and Diego Matamoros, whose resonant voices suit the book's emotional themes and Michaels' inner world." — Quill & Quire
"The dual narration of Munro and Matamoros lends a surprisingly deep sense of truth to Fugitive Pieces. A child's life is saved by a Greek geologist, who rescues him from hiding during WWII. Decades later, as an adult, he revisits the past by chance, when he meets a young professor whose parents survived the Holocaust. Listeners will be at once intrigued and deeply moved by individual voices that play off each other with a dialogue that seems almost operatic. There's a solid story here too, which makes listening even more fulfilling." — AudioFile
Read an Excerpt
My sister had long outgrown the hiding place. Bella was fifteen and even I admitted she was beautiful, with heavy brows and magnificent hair like black syrup, thick and luxurious, a muscle down her back. "A work of art," our mother said, brushing it for her while Bella sat in a chair. I was still small enough to vanish behind the wallpaper in the cupboard, cramming my head sideways between choking plaster and beams, eyelashes scraping.
Since those minutes inside the wall, I've imagined the dean lose every sense except hearing. The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father's mouth. Then silence. My mother had been sewing a button on my shirt. She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the rim of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little white teeth.
Blackness filled me, spread from the back of my head into my eyes as if my brain has been punctured. Spread from stomach to legs. I gulped and gulped, swallowing it whole. The wall filled with smoke. I struggled out and stared while the air caught fire.
I wanted to go to my parents, to touch them. But I couldn't, unless I stepped on their blood.
The soul leaves the body instantly, as if it can hardly wait to be free: my mother's face was not her own. My father was twisted with falling. Two shapes in the flesh-heap, his hands.
I ran and fell, ran and fell. Then the river: so cold it felt sharp.
The river was the same blackness that was inside me; only the thin membrane of my skin kept me floating.
From the other bank, I watched darkness turn to purple-orange light above the town; the color of flesh transforming to spirit. They flew up. The dead passed above me, weird haloes and arcs smothering the stars. The trees bent under their weight. I'd never been alone in the night forest, the wild bare branches were frozen snakes. The ground tilted and I didn't hold on. I strained to join them, to rise with them, to peel from the ground like paper ungluing at its edges. I know why we bury our dead and mark the place with stone, with the heaviest, most permanent thing we can think of: because the dead are everywhere but the ground. I stayed where I was. Clammy with cold, stuck to the ground. I begged: If I can't rise, then let me sink, sink into the forest floor like a seal into wax.
Then -- as if she'd pushed the hair from my forehead, as if I'd heard her voice--I knew suddenly my mother was inside me. Moving along sinews, under my skin the way she used to move through the house at night, putting things away, putting things in order. She was stopping to say goodbye and was caught, in such pain, wanting to rise, wanting to stay. It was my responsibility to release her, a sin to keep her from ascending. I tore at my clothes, my hair. She was gone. My own fast breath around my head.
I ran from the sound of the river into the woods, dark as the inside of a box. I ran until the first light wrung the last grayness out of the stars, dripping dirty light between the trees. I knew what to do. I took a stick and dug. I planted myself like a turnip and hid my face with leaves.
My head between the branches, bristling points like my father's beard. I was safely buried, my wet clothes cold as armor. Panting like a dog. My arms tight up against my chest, my neck stretched back, tears crawling like insects into my ears. I had no choice but to look straight up. The dawn sky was milky with new spirits. Soon I couldn't avoid the absurdity of daylight even by closing my eyes. It poked down, pinned me like the broken branches, like my father's beard.
Then I felt the worst shame of my life: I was pierced with hunger. And suddenly I realized, my throat aching without sounds -- Bella.
From the Trade Paperback edition.