WORDS OF THE WEEK

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The Independent's reviewer summed up Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels thus: `I can't imagine a better novel being published this year.' Here is an extract from this luminous first novel

For years after my marriage ended, Maurice and Irena pretended to envy my freedom; secretly thev amused themselves with the challenge of finding me a second wife. On my visits to Toronto they connived like teenagers. Lunches, family parties, faculty dinners - everv event a potential romantic minefield, with Maurice planting the bombshells. Maurice would make the introductions and then scram. I was accustomed to his refrain: "Now Jakob, I know this woman..." and remained unmoved.

But sometimes the world disrobes, slips its dress off a shoulder, stops time for a beat. If we look up at that moment, it's not due to any ability of ours to pierce the darkness, it's the world's brief bestowal. The catastrophe of grace.

I had been visiting Toronto part of every year for over 18 years before she walked into Maurice and Irena's kitchen.

I don't know what to look at first. Her light-brown hair or her dark- brown eyes or her small hand disappearing into the shoulder of her dress to adjust a strap.

"Michaela is an administrator at the museum," says Maurice as he makes his exit.

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. She discusses the influence of trade routes on European architecture, while still noticing the pattern of light across a table....

There's no one left in the kitchen. All around us are glasses and small towers of dirty dishes. The noise of the party in the other room. Michaela's hips lean against the kitchen counter. Voluptuous scholar. Michaela has only recently met Irena. She's asking after her.

I find myself telling Michaela a story that's a dozen years old, the story of Tomas's birth, about my experience of his soul.

"When Tomas was born, he was very premature. He weighed less than three pounds......

I had put on a gown, scrubbed my hands and arms to the elbows, and Irena led me in to see him. I saw what I can only call a soul, for it was not yet a self, caught in that almost transparent body. I have never before been so close to such palpable evidence of the spirit, so close to the almost invisible musselman whose eyes in the photos show the faint stain of a soul. Without breath, the evidence would vanish instantly. Tomas in his clear plastic womb, barely bigger than a hand.

Michaela has been looking down at the floor. Her hair, glossy and heavy and parted on the side, covers her face. Now she looks up. Suddenly I'm embarrassed at having spoken so much. Then she says: "I don't know what the soul is. But I imagine that somehow our bodies surround what has always been."

Standing together on the winter sidewalk, in the white darkness. I know even less than lamplight in a window, which knows how to pour itself into the street and arouse the longing of one who waits.

Her hair and hat circle her quiet face. She's young. There are twenty- five years between us. Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it's almost like joy. Her hat, the snow, remind me of Akhmatova's poem where, in two lines, the poet shakes her fists then closes her hands in prayer: "You're many years late,/how happy I am to see you."

The winter street is a salt cave. The snow has stopped falling and it's very cold. The cold is spectacular, penetrating. The street has been silenced, a theatre of whiteness, drifts like frozen waves. Crystals glisten under the streetlights. She points out her impractical boots, "party shoes," and then I feel her small leather glove around my arm.

Michaela lives above a bank. Her flat is a monastic cell of a sensuous order.I've entered an old world; the specifications of a dream. Magazines - Nature, Archaeology, The Conservator - and piles of books - novels, art history, children's stones - teeter on the floor next to the couch. Shoes left in the middle of the room; a shawl flung on the table. The clutter of hibernation. Jumbled rooms breathe dimly in the shallow light. The dark autumn fabrics, the rugs and heavy furniture, a wall of small framed photographs, a child's lamp in the shape of a horse - all seem in defiance of the strict world of accounting in the bank below.

I'm a thief who has climbed in through a window only to find himself struck frozen by a feeling of homecoming. The impossibility of it; the luck. I wait for Michaela to return with tea. I feel the malaise of the warm room, the peace of the immaculate snowfall. Michaelas crammed rooms have cast a spell. I'm already painted into the Rembrandt dimness.

She comes back, carrying a tray to the low living-room table; a silver pot, glasses edged in silver. Her shoes off, now wearing thick socks, she looks even younger. Now I see in Michaelas face the goodness of Beatrice de Luna, the Marrano angel of Ferrara, who reclaimed her faith and gave refuge to other exiles of the Inquisition. ... In Michaela's face, the loyalty of generations, perhaps the devotion of a hundred Kievan women for a hundred faithful husbands, countless evenings in close rooms under the sheets, discussing family problems; a thousand intimacies, dreams of foreign lands, first nights of love, nights of love after long years of marriage. In Michaela's eyes, ten generations of history, in her hair the scents of fields and pines, her cold, smooth arms carrying water from springs....

"Tea'," she asks, pushing newspapers onto the rug, clearing a place.

From the book Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels published by Bloomsbury this week at pounds 15.99. Call Exel Cash Sales on 01634 297123 to order your copy. Free p&p to UK mainland.

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