In Fugitive Pieces
, a historical novel published in 1996, Canadian poet Anne Michaels explores the aftermath of war on memory, and how war shapes the psyche even when a person does not directly experience its violence. The book is broken into two parts, the first narrated by a Polish man named Jakob Beer who is reflecting on his childhood as a Jewish boy living in Poland during World War II. The second half of the book is narrated by Ben, a Canadian professor born of Holocaust survivors who, sent to Greece to bring back Jakob's journals, finds himself lingering in Jakob's words, trying to understand the atrocities his parents survived to bring him into the world.
The novel is broken into two distinct sections. In Book I, there is a brief preface in which the reader is told that the following passages are taken from the journals of a man named Jakob Beer. What follows is a memoir, in which the narrator, Jakob, tells the story of his upbringing and the loss of his family in the Holocaust. Nazi soldiers invade seven-year-old Jakob's house. His family, including his sister, Bella, is captured, but Jakob hides in a cupboard behind a sheet of wallpaper and is not taken.
Unsure what to do now that his village is empty, Jakob hides in the forest, burying himself up to his neck in the dirt to avoid detection. In the forest, Jakob meets Athos, a Greek archaeologist who is working at the site of Biskupin, an Iron Age settlement in Poland. Athos takes Jakob back to Greece with him, where he essentially adopts the boy, teaching him Greek and English. Jakob learns the new languages quickly but finds that by learning them, he erases his connection to his own past. Hidden away in Athos's home in a remote corner of Greece, his only knowledge of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis comes from Athos, who tells him about the slaughtering of Jews in Crete. Jakob tries to find clues to uncover what happened to his sister, Bella; finding nothing, his only option is to imagine her death based on the information in news articles and history books.
Later, Athos and Jakob move to Toronto where Jakob falls in love with a girl he meets in a music library named Alexandra. Alexandra is out-spoken and witty, but she expects Jakob to abandon his past and move forward; their marriage falls apart. After that, Jakob meets Michaela, a much younger woman who helps him let go of the memories of his sister, Bella, that continue to haunt him. They move back to Greece, living a happy life together.
The narration in the first book is written in the spotty and unbalanced way that memories are put together – only a few pages, for example, are devoted to Jakob's marriage to Alexandra, while countless pages come from strung-together snippets from his childhood.
In Book II, the narrator switches to Canadian professor Ben, whose parents survived the Holocaust and moved to Toronto to make a new life for themselves. Ben can only imagine the pain that his parents experienced during the war. His childhood is touched by memories of their post-traumatic stress, like when Toronto police knocked on the door to warn them of a flood and the family hid in fear of being detained. After his parents' deaths, Ben finds a photograph of his parents from 1941, before their time in the ghetto, that reveals a secret about their past that he never imagined. Ben also uncovers the journals of Jakob Beer, a poet he had long admired; this draw to discover the secrets of his parents' past brings Ben to Jakob's home in Greece to recover the complete journals, where he finds himself swimming in the same narrative that began the book.
The structure of Anne Michaels's novel is unique in its circular structure, and the way it presents a book within a book. The chapter titles and meta elements of the story-telling tie the past to the present and demonstrate Michaels's strongest central theme: that the crimes committed in history have a direct influence on the lives of individuals, and society as a whole, in the present day. The book discusses the long-term and generational effects of trauma, as well as ideas about memory, lost family, and the healing power of grief and shared experience.Fugitive Pieces
was translated into twenty languages and was on the Canadian best-sellers list for more than two years after its publication. It won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Book Award, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Guardian Fiction Prize, as well as the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Michaels published another novel, The Winter Vault
, in 2009, which was also long- and short-listed for a number of awards, and is the author of seven collections of poetry, many of them also award-winners. Michaels is the current poet-laureate of Toronto, Canada.