It’s the age old question that many people ask. What’s your favourite book? Movie? Band? It’s always a struggle to take all those artists you love and boil them down to one, touching, prolific and ‘favourite’ artist. For me, choosing my favourite novel was… easy.
Rewind several years, I’m in high school and consider myself a bit of an elitist reader. Having already blown through many classics – early literature to cult – I found myself thirsty for stories at a young age. I would receive stacks upon stacks of books from used book stores from my grandmother (who reads more voraciously than I), and I would devour them in their entirety.
My mom made mention of a wonderful novel she had just finished called ‘Fugitive Pieces‘ by Anne Michaels – a Canadian author based out of Toronto. My mother and grandmother being the only people I ever took book recommendations from, I borrowed the book almost immediately and descend into what would be a life changing book for me then, and still to this day.
Fugitive Pieces is set during the second world war, in Poland. The story is centred around a little boy named Jakob Beer. Having witnessed the murder of his family from a hiding place, and the kidnapping of his sister, Jakob managed to escape persecution and almost certain death from the invasion of the Nazi’s. He then finds himself rescued by a Greek architect – named Athos – working in Poland at the time. Having not known what happened to his sister, Bella, Jakob grapples with the uncertainty of her life. Was she dead? Was she alive? Tortured by not knowing, Jakob is haunted by the ghosts of his entire family.
“Like other ghosts, she whispers; not for me to join her, but so that, when I’m close enough, she can push me back into the world.”
The two escape back to Greece where the reader is escorted through a tale spanning across many languages, wars, lives and loves.
“There’s a moment when love makes you believe in death for the first time. You recognize the one whose loss, even contemplated, you’ll carry forever, like a sleeping child. All grief, anyone’s grief…is the weight of a sleeping child.”
From Greece, Athos teaches Jakob how to speak English and Greek. He teaches him about the value of botany, geology and history. Athos shows Jakob how stones are the record of our lives, and how they tell stories about the earth. Athos sheds light on how, if you have a connection to the place that you’re from, you feel connected to history, to your past. More importantly, how if you have your sense of self, culture and place taken away from you (as observed in the second world war) – you’ve been stripped of your identify and sense of belonging. The novel speaks to how during the second world war, when the Nazi’s burned everything – they burned an entire people, an entire culture of stores and tradition, left in dust.
From Greece, Athos and Jakob move to Toronto to make a life in Canada. Jakob becomes a writer. Haunted by his memories, he is unable to share love with a woman without the ghosts of his family creeping up and haunting his present.
“To live with ghosts requires solitude.”
Having been mostly a poet prior to publishing her first novel, Michaels works are always an absolute pleasure to read. Dripping in metaphor and exquisite language, Michaels has an uncanny ability to place you within the story, making you feel loss, anxiety and admiration for the characters found within.
Finishing this novel for the first time (I’ve read it about 12 times), I was certain that I wanted to be a writer. If I could create that feeling of euphoria for anyone else in my time of writing and creating, I would consider my work a success.
The novel was turned into a movie in 2008 – which gave the book as much credit as it could without reciting it verbatim. As most bookies tend to agree – the novel was better in my opinion but worth a watch if you fall in love with the book as I have.
Give this novel a read, you will not regret it.
“The shadow-past is shaped by everything that never happened. Invisible, it melts the present like rain through karst. A biography of longing. It steers us like magnetism, a spirit torque. This is how one becomes undone by a smell, a word, a place, the photo of a mountain of shoes. By love that closes its mouth before calling a name.”