Words for music, perhaps

FUGITIVE PIECES by Anne Michaels Bloomsbury pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
IF ANNE MICHAELS were not already an accomplished poet who has scooped prizes in her native Canada, it would be all the more extraordinary that this powerful novel of history, loss, love and exile should be her first. Though its double structure is a tricky one - there are in effect two heroes, two life stories - and there are boggy bits that seem long, it is a book that demands to be read slowly, more like a vast poem than a prose narrative, for its passages of unshowy but virtuosic description and its oblique, piercing perceptions which cannot be taken at speed.

Jakob Beer is the only one tiny enough to hide in the gap of the wall when the Nazi soldiers come for his family. The stuff of his nightmares, for decades, is that when he finally emerges he cannot get to the bodies of his parents "without stepping on their blood", and that his sister, Bella, is nowhere to be seen. The search for Bella overtakes one half of the "double reality" which Jakob later inhabits; years later, after he has married the boisterous Alex, "Every moment is two moments. Alex's hairbrush propped on the sink: Bella's brush. Alex's bobby pins: Bella's hairclips turning up in strange places, as bookmarks, or holding music open on the piano ..."

Only seven, Jakob wanders and starves in the devastated Polish city until he is rescued by an older man, a Greek geologist. Athos carries the boy, huddled inside his greatcoat, on the first of many journeys, across wartime Europe to the small Greek island of his home. Here, as whole Jewish populations are wiped from the islands, the two take tenuous refuge, and Jakob makes up for his confinement in the house with a growing passion for the rocks, fossils, plants, bones, maps and verses to be found in Athos's library.

There's a second shift, across the sea to Canada, where Jakob has to learn yet another language, yet another set of cultural rules. The novel is clever, both deeply and more skittishly, about language (as it is about music). When Jakob meets Alex, words are games by which she is obsessed: puns and palindromes, rhyming slang and anagrams form the basis of her relation to the world. Despite this worked-at familiarity with the English language, the doubly dislocated Jakob feels he is "a breath apart, a touch-typist who holds his hands above the keys slightly in the wrong place" - but he also discovers that words with no associations, "an alphabet without memory", can seal off some of the pain when he begins to write about the events of his childhood.

The novel's second part brings Ben, whose twin obsessions are the weather and biography, into the life of the much older Jakob, now married again to Michaela. Ben's childhood revolved around his parents' agonised silences and deadly secrets, the evidence of their past suffering made clear in, for instance, his father's eating: "My father ate frequently to avoid the first twists of hunger because, once they gripped him, he'd eat until he was sick. Then he ate dutifully, methodically, tears streaming down his face, animal and spirit in such raw evidence, knowing he was degrading both ..."

Although this second story is also compelling, mysterious and beautifully written, it is disappointing: we struggle at having to leave Jakob partly behind to concentrate on Ben and his Naomi. But the theme and its variations have a cumulative power, and on the whole the considerable risks Anne Michaels takes in this symphony of grief and longing, exile and identity, do pay off. It would not be easy to find a modern novel, especially a first, to match this one for line-by-line beauty. Its stories, too, have a haunting quality, if only because Michaels has the guts to create, and confront, some of the worst and the best things that human beings can do to each other.