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Fugitive Pieces    by Anne Michaels order for
Fugitive Pieces
by Anne Michaels
Order:  USA  Can
McClelland & Stewart, 1999 (1996)
Hardcover, Softcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I was not surprised to see that Michaels' other publications were works of poetry as her style is lyrical, with a vivid use of imagery ... 'My deepest story must be told by a blind man, a prisoner of sound. From behind a wall, from underground. From the corner of a small house on a small island that juts like a bone from the skin of the sea.' This story is a gripping exercise in empathy with Holocaust survivors, answering the author's own question 'To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?'

Athos Rousseau, a Greek geologist, pulls seven year old Jakob Beer from the mud of Biskupin, Poland after he has witnessed his parents' murder from a hiding place. He does not know the fate of his beautiful and talented sister Bella, and that lack haunts him. Athos smuggles Jakob out of Poland under his coat, becomes his Koumbaros or godfather, and hides him on the small Greek island of Zakynthos for four years, nourishing him with tales of geologists and explorers, cartographers and navigators.

Michaels sketches accounts of atrocities against this backdrop of time and history, creating a distance that makes it possible, though never easy, to read about them. The Greek setting adds color, historical interest and images of the ocean that continue through the book ... 'Far below, salt pulls the heavy scent of lilacs into the sea, the fragrance drowns, sweet purple, in piercing blue.'

At the end of the war, Athos accepts a teaching post at the University of Toronto and Jakob slowly learns a new language, country and culture. He does not forget the past but over many years and some relationships, comes to terms with it, and expresses that through his poems. Late in life he marries the young Michaela and, for the first time, feels that there is a future, 'your words and your life no longer separate, after decades of hiding in your skin.'

In a seeming discontinuity late in the story, the author focuses on Ben, a professor and son of Holocaust survivors, who briefly meets the 60 year old Jakob and Michaela. Ben is troubled and damaged by his own past and Jakob's legacy of writings eventually teaches him an important lesson, 'To remain with the dead is to abandon them ...', thus tying the two tales together.

Michaels has given us a remarkable piece of work about survivors of a shattering horror when 'Time was cut by a knife.' Her story swells up from the pages to capture the reader like an incoming tide.

Review by Sally Selvadurai:

This novel follows the life of Jakob Beer, from his escape from Germany during the Second World War to his death in Greece after an adult life as a poet, writer and translator. It then tracks the interpersonal relationships of a much younger individual, Ben.

Jakob's life was forever changed by his flight from the Nazis and subsequent rescue by Athos Roussos, scientist and humanist. Athos smuggled the young Jakob to his home on one of the more remote Greek islands where they waited out the occupation in seclusion; here Jakob learnt first to understand Athos and then added English to his newly acquired Greek, absorbing the stories and legends that Athos read to him, and Athos' own brand of philosophy.

At the end of the war, Athos and Jakob head for Toronto where Athos takes a teaching position at the University of Toronto's geography department, headed by one of his own 'heroes' who participated in Captain Scott's Antarctic Expedition. Jakob attends school and university in Toronto, gradually coming to terms with his depression over losing his own family and, latterly, Athos. He meets and marries Alex, his total opposite, but their relationship does not stand the test of time. Many years later Jakob meets a much younger woman, Michaela, who fills his world with wonder, finally banishing the ghosts that have haunted him for so many years.

Just before Jakob's death he meets Ben, who takes over the book's narrative. Ben is also a victim of the Nazis, through his parents, a silent couple who continued to relive sorrow and horror for their remaining years. Ben, a biographer, takes leave from his own failing marriage to spend time at Jakob's house (previously Athos's) on Idhra, a Greek island. There he acknowledges his own short-comings and returns with renewed vitality to his marriage.

This book is very powerful and the images disturbing, especially the long-term effects that oppression can have, not only on the survivors but also on their descendents. This is not to say that I liked all of it; I found the first part riveting, but gradually the vilification became tedious and by the time Ben was ready to reconcile with his wife, Naomi, I had almost had enough. I would much rather the book ended with Jakob's death, without Ben's personal search for 'the meaning of life'.

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