9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 16 January 2009
It is difficult to know where to begin with this book. I have been interested to read the other reviews. It is rare to see such polarised opinions. I guess it is fair to say that if you are looking for a plot-driven yarn with a healthy range of realistic characters then this book is not for you. It is not so much a story as a complex linguistic journey of discovery which, by venturing deep within the damaged psyche of two Jewish men manages to expose fundamental truths about all men, all people, all living things, the earth itself. If this sounds pretentious to you then I would advise you not to read the book. Michaels is first and foremost a poet and it shows. Her language is dense with imagery and allegory, to read just one page is to dive into a swamp of words, some of them admittedly, rapidly pass you by but others will linger with you forever. Michaels' understanding of the relationships between men and women and both the world around them and the words they use to interact and define themselves is simply breathtaking. If you take this book for what it is meant to be and allow yourself to be pulled into the sometimes tortured, but always fundamentally human world Michaels skilfully creates, then I can guarantee that whether you be Jew, Gentile or Muslim, Canadian, Greek or Brazilian, you will connect with this book's profound humanity and it's haunting residue will stay with you forever.
51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on 19 December 2002
Fugitive Pieces is Canadian poet Anne Michaels' first novel and it is beautiful in the extreme. At the heart of this lovely and moving book is the struggle to understand the despair of loss and the solace of love and, most of all, the difficulty of reconciling the two. The protagonists are two Jewish men, one a Holocaust survivor, the other the son of Holocaust survivor parents.
Material such as that explored in Fugitive Pieces could very easily become trite and cliched, but in Michaels' extraordinarily gifted hands suffering, loss and grief become nothing less than transcendent. An extraordinarily gifted writer, Michaels creates wonderful characters and tells an engrossing story through the use of gorgeous, but spare, dialogue and subtle metaphor.
The plot is a rather simple one (this is definitely a character driven story) but it is profound and also a profoundly moving meditation on the nature of grief and the redemptive power of love. The first line in the book, "Time is a blind guide," is haunting, but it is also ironic, for the story will prove that time is anything but blind.
One of the protagonists, Jakob Beer, was orphaned as a seven-year old boy in Poland. Although the death of his parents affects Jakob most greviously, it is his sorrow at the death of his beloved older sister, Bella, that will remain with him for a lifetime. Jakob, himself, escapes the Nazis and flees into the forests of Poland where he is rescued by a Greek geologist, Athos Roussos, who eventually smuggles the boy to the Greek island of Zakynthos.
On Zakynthos, Jakob can finally begin to put his life back together again. He is, however, haunted by memories of Bella, a gifted pianist. It is Bella who ultimately becomes Jakob's Beatrice as he begins his fascination with the poetry that will play a central role in the balance of his life.
Athos, himself a widower, and Jakob, an orphan, seem to find in each other what they thought they had forever lost: a sense of family and abiding love and trust. As Athos finds joy in raising Jakob, Jakob finds joy in the values Athos seeks to instill in him: the love of language, scholarship and ethics.
Although Athos seeks to heal Jakob, he does not attempt to obliterate his past. Ïnstead, Athos encourages Jakob to learn his Hebrew alphabet, telling him it is the future he is remembering rather than the past. As Jakob practices both the twisting and ornate letters of Hebrew and Greek, Athos tells him that both languages contain the "ancient loneliness of ruins."
The narrative eventually moves from Greece to Toronto where Jakob becomes the product of his love for the late Bella and the teachings of Athos. The love given him so freely by both will serve as a continuum for the rest of Jakob's life as he realizes that the best teachers encourage, not the mind, but the heart. Jakob comes to know that Athos instilled in him the necessity of love and, that, to honor both Athos and Bella he must resolve a "perpetual thirst."
The story closes with the character of Ben, a young professor who has become fascinated by both Jakob and his work. Their relationship is reminiscent of the relationship of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses. Ben's family was the very antithesis of the relationship shared by Athos and Jakob. In Ben's family there was no energy, no love, no sadness. Ben seeks strength and purpose in Jakob's life and in his words, words that have the ability to transmute the horror of war and the loss of family. Words that have the power to speak that which, heretofore, has remained unspoken.
Fugitive Pieces is a beautiful novel, a meditation on love and loss and grief and solace. It is a quiet book but one that is immensely profound. Anne Michaels is a gifted poet and with Fugitive Pieces she proves that she is an extraordinary gifted writer of prose as well.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 4 January 2004
It is obvious that Fugitive Pieces is a beatifully written novel, the language is descriptive and flowing and it is dripping with poetry. However, my enjoyment of the novel was lessened somewhat by how I'd heard other people describe it - "Overpowering", "Breathtaking", and some said they could only read it in small bursts it was so intense. This made me realise that I didn't feel like that at all, that I wasn't overwhelmed or pinned to my seat or anything, it just seemed like a poetic novel that i knew i should be affected by but wasn't.
Despite this, Fugitive Pieces is thought provoking and intelligent, and there were parts at which I did have to stop and read again to take it in properly. So I'm still not sure whether it is a fantastic novel, or if I just don't get it!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
For two-thirds of this novel I was entranced. Anne Michaels, b. 1956, is a Canadian writer and poet and this novel, published in the UK in 1997, won numerous prizes, including the Orange Prize for Fiction.
The book is steeped in metaphors [although there were times when I felt almost bludgeoned by them , as in ‘a poem is as neural as love; the rut of rhythm that veers the mind'], and its descriptions of wartime atrocities, life on a Greek island, Canada and in mainland Greece are intensely poetic.
The first part of the novel, written in short terrifying sections, describes the killing of the parents of an unnamed Jewish boy in wartime Poland and the capture of his sister, his flight to a nearby river and his hiding in the mud until discovered by Antanasios Roussos [Athos], a polymath who is excavating the site of the ‘drowned city’ of Biskupin. Athos takes the boy, Jakob Beer, to his isolated home on a Greek island, Zakynthos, where remains hidden from the Germans until they are defeated.
During this period, Athos draws Jakob into the world of ‘geologists and explorers, cartographers’, science and language as he attempts to loosen the traumatic effects that his wartime experiences have had. This is only partly successful. In particular, Jakob feels inexorably linked to his older sister, Bella, a pianist. After the war, the two go to live in Athens and later to Toronto. Jakob becomes a translator and poet, and after Athos’ unexpected death he determines to publish the latter’s study of the Nazis’ falsification of archaeology to demonstrate Aryan supremacy.
The second half of the book describes Jakob’s adult life which continues to be affected by memories from the past, in particular, of Bella and by the guilt of his survival. He marries and returns to Athens but his memories are too intense for his wife to compete with. Key aspects of his youth and middle-age life are glossed over, his writing and studies and his marriage to Alex, a fiery and independent woman who urges him to move on with her rather than remain yolked to Bella. There is no indication of why these are less important that what we are told about his life. Alex’s love of puns and palindromes, ’in her mouth English was dangerous and alive, edgy and hot’, does not sit well with her inward-looking husband.
The final third of the book, less successful, is narrated by a young meteorologist, Ben, whose parents survived the holocaust, and who admires Jacob's poetry and his triumph over extreme adversity. Ben becomes obsessed with Jakob’s story and, following the latter’s death in a traffic accident, travels to Athens to find his autobiographical writings.
Whereas Michaels’ poetic meditation impresses, her ability to develop a narrative is less successful. She adds to her difficulty by having to describe events that the first of her chosen narrators, Jakob, cannot remember or has not experienced – the events of the German occupations of Poland and Greece.
At one point, Jakob thinks of Houdini ‘astonishing audiences by stuffing himself into boxes and trunks, then escaping, unaware that a few years later other Jews would be crawling into bins and boxes and cupboards [as Jakob himself did] to escape.’
Athos and Jakob are each strongly developed enough to retain the interest of the reader and to support the depth and breadth of her extensive research. Ben, unfortunately, is not and, moreover, his voice did not seem to be that dissimilar from Jakob’s.
The young Jakob searches through his fragmentary childhood memory, something he continues to do in adulthood. Ben searches for the physical fragments of Jakob’s story aided by Petra, a girl he has briefly met, who first sabotages his search and then, indirectly, reveals its objective. Sadly, Petra is little more than two-dimensional.
Memories of loss permeate this novel as the characters try to deal with their loss and its eternal, agonising pain as best they can. At one point Jakob says ‘We were Russian dolls. I inside Athos, Bella inside me.’ But Jakob himself may be read as being ‘inside’ Ben who, at the end of the novel, has the information to fully reveal his life story.
Ultimately I was disappointed by the author’s very considerable poetic ability overshadowing a limited narration.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 June 2011
This seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it books. It has generated a great deal of praise, some of which seemed quite excessive to me, and no doubt added to my disappointment, but there are also many who found it pretentious, aimless and boring. The further I got into the novel the more I realized I would be in the latter group.
The story seems to be about lots of things and nothing much - surviving the holocaust, a boy's love for the man who rescued him, loss, identity, family, and much more. But it doesn't really focus on anything. There's no real characterization and there's no plot whatsoever. It wanders poetically around, sometimes losing itself in a dead end of flowery, meaningless prose.
I also found the narrative confusing. Somewhere towards the end I realized the narrator had become a different person, but it happened without any indication and I couldn't even tell who the new narrator was supposed to be. In truth I hardly cared, as by then I'd lost interest in the novel.
The only reason I give this more than one star is that there are actually a few thoughtful ideas and some good writing buried away in here.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 February 2014
I'm not a particularly avid reader and originally got a copy of this during a stay in the UK. It then sat on a bookshelf, unread, for over a year, before I finally decided to pick it up. It is probably one of the most beautifully written books that I've read. To say that it took me on a journey is an understatement. It made me cry, smile, contemplate, and stimulated my visual imagination to the limit. I have to admit that, at the beginning, it didn't make much sense, but I persevered and all the pieces came together. I loved it so much, I bought another 3 copies as gifts to friends,in the hope that they enjoy it as much as I did. I actually had to limit myself each day in order to make it last longer, otherwise I would've devoured it in a single sitting!! Recommended, though of course it won't be everyone's "tazza di te". My husband read an italian translation and didn't seem to rate it much,,,might have been down to the translation or just a matter of taste.
on 23 November 2013
Jakob Beer is an eleven year old boy who after witnessing the death of his parents is found living within the destroyed Polish city of Biskupin by Athos Roussous, a scientist. Athos takes the boy back to an island in Greece. There on the island of Zakynthos, Athos teaches the boy about the sciences and the world while the Second World War rages on through Europe.
The second part of the book is about Ben an expert on meteorology. He meets the sixty year old Jakob at a party in Canada and this encounter changes his life forever.
It is almost impossible to review this book without using the adjective, poetic. After reading the book and then researching the author Anne Michaels it came as no surprise that she has won awards for her poetry; the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas and the Canadian Association Award to name but a few. The language of poetry seeps and bleeds through every sentence, every paragraph and every page.
"On Zakynthos sometimes the silence shimmers with the overtone of bees. Their bodies roll in the air, powdery with golden weight. The field was heavy with daisies, honeysuckle, and broom. Athos said: "Greek lamentation burns the tongue. Greek tears are ink for the dead to write their lives."
Greece was devastated by the war and the occupation by the German forces. Nearly half a million people died during the occupation and almost all of the Jewish community were wiped out. The island of Zakynthos, where Athos takes Jakob, is symbolic of the ideals and the wonders of the planet that Athos teaches the young Jakob. The population of Zakynthos during WWII showed immense bravery by refusing to hand over a list of the Jewish community to the Nazis for deportation to the death camps. In fact all the Jewish people on the island survived thanks mainly to Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrysostomos who hid all 275 Jews in rural villages.
Fugitive Pieces is a book about so many things; geology, meteorology, persecution, isolation, archaeology, ideology, inhumanity, identity etc. It weaves these subjects through the lives, loves, families and friends of Athos, Jakob and Ben. All three are all repelled by and fascinated by the world and the people within. All three believe in the need for company but would prefer to sit in their room writing and reading or walking alone through the streets at night. Jakob eschews natural and artificial light for the comfort of darkness. Ben is fascinated by the volatility and unpredictable nature of lightning and twisters.
Weather and nature are as much characters within the book as the main protagonists. They are both the enemy and ally of the main characters. They permeate and suffuse the book with their destructiveness and their beauty.
"We think of the weather as transient, changeable, and above all, ephemeral; but everywhere nature remembers. Trees, for example, carry the memory of rainfall. In their rings we read ancient weather - storms, sunlight, and temperatures, the growing seasons of centuries. A forest shares a history, which each tree remembers even after it has been felled."
Amongst all this beautiful, profound and elegiac language lies the horror of the nature of man. The German occupying force throwing babies from hospital windows while soldiers `catch' them on their bayonets while complaining about the sleeves of their uniform being soaked in blood. The people of Greece die from starvation as the German Army utilise all foodstuffs. Greeks today identify the word occupation with famine and hunger. It is due to the horrors of WWII that the Greeks today were disgusted at the notion of German Chancellor Merkel in 2011 imposing austerity measures on their country.
Fugitive Pieces is great piece of literature that is written with aplomb, intelligence and an eye for the poetic. However, it may be that very style of language that will repel as many people as it will attract. The book's narrative is at times oblique and minimalist. There is no authorial hand-holding through the forest of complexities that the narrative follows.
This book won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1997. Having only read four of the six shortlisted books for that year I cannot yet decide if I agree with the judges decision.
on 4 February 2012
Fugitive Pieces, a novel by the poet Anne Michaels is a book of two narrators. In the first part our narrator is Jakob, who is rescued as a child by a Greek man, Athos who smuggles him into Greece, and thereby saves his life, having rescued him from the Holocaust. Jakob grows up with geologist and academic Athos as a father figure but is haunted by the memories of his dead family in particular his sister, Bella.
Our second narrator is Ben, something of a fan of the work of both Athos and later Jakob, in what is the reverse of Jakob's situation, Ben's parents survived the Holocaust and escaped to Canada where Ben grew up. But, in doing so inflicted damage upon Ben's childhood, different to that of Jakob but from the same root.
As a novel I had a mixed response to it, it is often written in non sequiturs (pieces from a fugitive) which could often be annoying or confusing. Indeed, when the novel switched narrators from Jakob to Ben it took me ages to realise this had happened, and, this apparent change in Jakob's circumstance completely threw me off. In addition, the Jakob sections are more enjoyable and better written, though I occasionally found the novel as a whole verbose and disengaging.
Despite my misgivings this novel has some very poetic prose which I enjoyed :
Her mind is a palace. She moves through history with the fluency of a spirit, mourns the burning of the library at Alexandria as if it happened yesterday.
And I really enjoyed a moral lesson posed by a rabbi midway through the novel that is perhaps too long to quote. Yes, ultimately I found the book mixed and I doubt I would either recommend it or re-read it 6.5/10
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 25 May 2004
Fugitive pieces is one of the best books I have ever read. It is beautiful not just because of the poetic language but because it addresses so many fundamental human issues that affect all of us. Jacob's journey through life covers many aspects that will affect all of us at some time like loss, living with the uncertainty of knowing what happened to people who died, the struggle to cope with a normal existence after trauma, finding happiness late in life, I could go on. Michaels tackles bigger issues too like what happened to the children of survivors, how our parents' often had a life that we knew nothing about and how we often have to forgive ourselves for having a poor relationship with our parents. Essentially it is about the fragile web that binds us all and makes us human. It is not a 'sequential' novel as such. It moves along at its own pace and almost appears to be the thought of the narrator. it does not have a 'plot' (most good novels don't, you might notice) and it is not essentially a book ABOUT the holocaust. I agree, if you want to read a book about the Holocaust, buy Primo Levi. If you want to read a beautiful, provocative book about humanity and the fragility of life, buy this one. I wish I could have written it!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2009
This novel is one of the best books I have ever read. The fact that the author is a poet shines through on every page. I found myself re-reading pages over and over again, just to marvel at the beauty of the wordsw. The subject is gripping - a Jewish boy saved from the Ghetto during the second world war and brought up by a guardian who must be one of the most sensitively-drawn characters in fiction. But it is the beauty of the language, the way which Anne Michael portrays the story, which keeps you reading.
The second half of the book is a bit of a jump from the first half, which initially I found difficult, but then it all makes sense.....
I really can't rate this novel highly enough, I would recommend it to everyone.