Held by Anne Michaels Review

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Canadian author Anne Michaels’s first novel, Fugitive Pieces, published in the UK in 1997, was described by John Berger as “the most important book I have read in 40 years”. In 2020, it was chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 “novels that shaped our world”. The book explores the long shadow of the Holocaust through the intertwined stories of two survivors.

It was not the story that fascinated readers, though – it was the language. Michaels was a poet before she became a novelist and, in Fugitive Pieces, every sentence has a brilliant crystalline luminosity. Critics were also fascinated by the dreamlike quality of the book and by Michaels’s ability to move seamlessly between the intimate and the epic.

Fugitive Pieces undoubtedly deserved the many accolades it received but, for a writer, a spectacularly successful first novel can be a curse as well as a gift. When Michaels’s second book, The Winter Vault, was published 12 years later, it was admired but, almost inevitably, judged to be less brilliant. Now Michaels returns with a third: Held.

In this new novel, Michaels revisits the themes of her earlier stories – history, memory, the effects of trauma and grief over long periods, and the power of love to heal even the most grievous pain. She also continues to draw on the techniques of poetry and the lyrical novel. The writing is always personal, hypersensitive and profoundly interior.

Michaels works in short, dazzling snapshot scenes, collage-like and even hallucinatory. Each paragraph is as carefully shaped as a poetic stanza and characters are constantly captured in situations that illuminate Michaels’s belief that “we are born to face a single moment”.

All of this will be familiar to readers of her earlier books, but Held breaks new ground by introducing a large cast of characters and many different stories. Scenes loop back and forwards from 1902 through to 2025. Locations shift from a battlefield in first world war France to North Yorkshire, London, Belarus and various war zones.

John was grievously wounded in the first world war. Alan is a war photographer. His partner, Mara, is a nurse in a field hospital. Her father, Peter, makes exquisite hats. Sometimes, the reader is able to understand how these characters and their stories connect but often the links are not explicit.

We are asked to let go of traditional narrative structures and surrender to a looser architecture that is held together by association and recurring motifs. As one of Michaels’s characters puts it: “The elusiveness of the form is the form.” Techniques of narrative layering are employed with great skill as themes echo and return.

Photography and image are central, along with the insistence that the dead are never gone. Michaels reminds us that while history is sometimes “simply detritus”, it’s also true that “the past exists as a present moment”.

War, destruction and tyranny are ever present – but so is hope. Paavo, living under communism, remarks that “with every tightening of the screw, the tyrant makes our hope more precise. And nothing enrages a tyrant more than hope.”

While the fluid structure of this work may be challenging for some readers, it’s clear that Michaels’s writing continues to stand head and shoulders above most other fiction. At the heart of this book lies the question of how goodness and love can be held across the generations. For Michaels, our final task is “to endure the truth”.

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