Held by Anne Michaels review – a kaleidoscopic family saga
The author Anne Michaels, from Canada, is most recognized for her debut novel, Fugitive Pieces, which received numerous awards in 1996. This latest book could be described as a collection of fragmented storytelling and essays, similar to its title.
As we approach the end of Held in terms of pages, but near the beginning in terms of chronology, we are transported to Paris in 1908, where we find ourselves in the company of esteemed guests. Among them are Ernest Rutherford, a trailblazer in nuclear physics, and Marie and Pierre Curie. On a warm summer evening, the group moves to the garden to enjoy coffee illuminated by a new type of lantern – a copper tube irradiated with light. The conversation turns to Madame Palladino, a renowned medium. Despite Pierre Curie’s inability to prove her fraudulent, he states that science should not dismiss what it cannot comprehend. The strange glow of the lantern seems to mirror the idea that the deceased may exist alongside the living, remembering us just as we remember them.
While the Curies are not the main focus of the story, recurring themes of science, hauntings, and the complexities of love and time are prevalent in this episodic novel. If the events were rearranged in a sequential manner, it would tell a four-generational family saga centered around strong female characters. First, we meet Helena, an artist who struggles with self-doubt and whose husband tragically takes his own life after being wounded in World War I. Next is her daughter Anna, a doctor who marries a Marxist hatmaker and constantly leaves him to work in war zones, causing him heartbreak. Then we have Mara, another doctor who is also drawn to war zones but ultimately chooses compassion over self-sacrifice. Lastly, we meet another Anna.
These lives could have been the stuff of a century-spanning, continent-spanning epic, but Michaels chops them up and rearranges them to make something odder and more formally interesting – a kaleidoscopic narrative in which memories, dreams and supernatural visitations are as integral to the patterning as real-world events.
The story takes us back and forth through time, with each section introducing new characters and settings. Readers will notice similarities between the different stories. For example, Aimo, a man in love, follows Anna in Finland in the year 2025. This is made possible by Michaels’s time travel abilities, which allow her to access both the past and the future. Interestingly, Aimo is likely the child of the musician parents we saw being exiled from Estonia for their rebellious thoughts in 1980. Another link is the baby who is conceived when a Frenchwoman meets a photographer in the forest in 1902 while collecting firewood. This child will grow up to become the first Anna’s husband. These connections between characters help tie together the various stories that make up the novel. However, on a deeper level, these connections also reveal more profound themes and ideas.
The story opens with the perspective of an injured soldier, who ponders the concept of life and death. He questions why death is often seen as permanent. A brief pause is indicated, followed by an asterisk. The narrator then mentions a bird flying over the hill, but the soldier is unable to see it. This writing style is characteristic of Michaels, who utilizes poetic techniques in her fictional prose. The emphasis is on the interplay between meaningful thoughts and vivid imagery, rather than on developing characters or advancing the plot.
The initial philosophical paragraphs introduce two intertwined reflections that are woven throughout the story. One is centered around the concept of mortality, while the other is closely linked to photography and other methods of capturing images. The first is expressed through aphoristic statements that can sometimes be seen as profound, but other times are simply unclear. I personally prefer Michaels’ writing when it is more specific, such as when she focuses on knitting, a topic she frequently revisits. In the Brest-Litovsk train station, an elderly female border guard searches through a suitcase and hesitates upon finding a delicate and intricate baby sweater, with its complex patterns serving as a symbol for love.
The book “Held” contains many gaps in time, where characters experience significant events such as death, birth, exile, or despair. Similar to a complex knitting pattern, the book is mostly comprised of empty spaces and missing pieces. The stories are revealed in fragments, leaving it up to the reader to connect them together.
Mara enjoys books that have a unique structure, starting from the middle, much like life itself. Michaels’ novel features a cyclical structure, with multiple beginnings and endings. The story revolves around the main female characters, but also touches on the lives of their parents, lovers, and even people from different times and places, reminiscent of the figures in a medieval manuscript’s margins. These include Darwin, who ponders on his thoughts while walking in his garden, and the priests who stayed in Babylon after its downfall, studying the stars and planets and finding a mathematical pattern.
Michaels is highly receptive to the wonders of science. It is assumed that readers will comprehend the concept of “perhaps death was Lagrangian”, be acquainted with the term “asymptotic”, and have knowledge of “acoustic mirrors” – large stone listening devices used on the English coast during World War I before the invention of radar. However, despite Michaels’s intellectual rigor, they also possess a compassionate heart. This book may be challenging, yet it delves deeply into the subject of love.
Michaels states that history can sometimes be considered debris. Her book is a collection of shortened narratives and abstract concepts, but its disorganization allows for adaptability and durability. She proves that scattered fragments can form a structure that is just as sturdy and significant as a completed monument.