Book review

Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one." This line, from G by John Berger, was used by Michael Ondaatje as the epigraph for In the Skin of a Lion. It is also there like a watermark, touching every page of Anne Michaels's novel.

Her central character is Jakob Beer, a Jew, through the prism of whose life are refracted the deaths of six million others. To say that Fugitive Pieces is about the Holocaust threatens to diminish it, however. For just as Beer's life provides the entry point for writing about the Holocaust, so the Holocaust is the entry to a meditation on time, history and memory. And not just human time, human memory, but geological time and rock memories: "witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling has left them forever desirous. We long for place; but place itself longs."

In pages, this is not a vast book; but all except a handful of contemporary novels are dwarfed by its reach, its compassion, its wisdom. Beer, a poet, is born in Poland in 1933. He dies with his wife in an accident 60 years later. Two-thirds of the book are made up of his notebooks; the last third is narrated by one of his students who travels to Greece in search of them. The student is the son of survivors; Beer himself was the only member of his family to have escaped the Nazis.

When the book begins, in 1941, he is hiding in the mud of the Iron Age village of Biskupin. Athos, an archaeologist and polymath, finds Jakob and takes him back to the Greek island where he lives. The boy's safety - and his protector's - is constantly threatened (Greece is occupied) but in the tranquillity of Zakynthos Jakob starts to acquire from Athos the hoard of folk-lore and knowledge - about plants, rocks, tides, land formations - which will combine with the memory of his vanished family to shape his life and work.

After the war Athos and Jakob emigrate to Canada. Jakob learns English and in this new language - "an alphabet without memory" - finds the faith in words that leads him to tell the stories that have made him what he is.

To present Michaels's novel in summary is to distort it terribly.Any number of metaphors will do to suggest its intricate structure. It is a jigsaw which fits together precisely because so many pieces are missing. It accretes like strata of rock which are then brought into adjacency by fractures and faults. It works like limestone, "that crushed reef of memory": the material that shows how time buckles and meets itself "in pleats and folds".

The ingredients of most novels are poured into a predetermined mould. Reading Fugitive Pieces, however, an unprecedented imaginative creation takes shape before your eyes. Beer thinks of history as "the gradual instant" and that is how the reader becomes aware of how special this book is - gradually, instantly.

Michaels was born in Canada in 1958. Before this, her first novel, she published two books of poetry, and one is aware of that obsessive verbal heightening - "Draping slugs splash like tar across the ferns; black icicles of flesh" - we associate with Michael Ondaatje (who is, I suspect, Michaels's major influence after Berger himself). But while Ondaatje uses this urgent intensification for aesthetic effect, in Michaels's case it is an inherent part of her thought.

Metaphor, for Michaels, is the condition achieved by thought at the most intense concentration imaginable. Under this imaginative pressure the capacity for wonder and for rigorous thought are indistinguishable. Her writing is as idea-packed as Roberto Calasso's - minus all the flimflam - and the quality and subtlety of her thought is breathtaking.

Observing the premature birth of a baby, Beer is sure that he can see "the faint stain of a soul" for "it was not yet a self, caught in that almost transparent body". He feels immediately embarrassed by these remarks, but the woman who is to become his wife replies: "I don't know what the soul is. But I imagine that somehow our bodies surround what has always been."

I had trouble finding that passage again. Usually I mark particularly impressive passages in pencil, but all except the first 30 pages of my copy of Fugitive Pieces are blank. If I'd gone on marking, it would have become un-re-readable - and this is a book to read many times. I simply can't imagine a better novel being published this year. GD

Suggested Topics


Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss