Held by Anne Michaels review – still master of her universe
In 1997, the debut novel of Canadian writer Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, was praised by John Berger as “the most significant book I have read in four decades”. In 2020, it was selected as one of the BBC’s 100 “novels that influenced our society”. The novel delves into the lasting impact of the Holocaust through the interconnected narratives of two survivors.
The language, rather than the story, captivated readers. Before becoming a novelist, Michaels was a poet, and in Fugitive Pieces, her sentences shine with a brilliant clarity. Critics were intrigued by the dreamy atmosphere of the book and praised Michaels for effortlessly transitioning between the personal and the grand scale.
The book Fugitive Pieces was highly acclaimed, but for an author, having a hugely successful first novel can come with its own challenges. When Michaels released her second book, The Winter Vault, 12 years later, it was praised but inevitably seen as not as exceptional. Now, Michaels presents her third book, Held.
This latest book by Michaels explores similar topics to her previous works, including the impact of history, memories, trauma, and loss over extended periods, and the ability of love to bring healing to deep emotional wounds. She also employs poetic and lyrical elements in her storytelling. The writing is consistently intimate, highly sensitive, and deeply introspective.
Michaels crafts brief, stunning moments in his writing, resembling collages and even delusions. Every paragraph is meticulously crafted like a stanza in poetry, and the characters are consistently depicted in scenarios that reflect Michaels’ belief that we are destined to confront defining moments.
This will be recognizable to those who have read her previous works, however, Held takes a new approach by incorporating a diverse group of characters and multiple plotlines. The scenes jump back and forth in time from 1902 to 2025. The settings vary from a World War I battlefield in France to North Yorkshire, London, Belarus, and other war-torn areas.
John suffered serious injuries during World War I. Alan works as a photographer in war zones. Mara serves as a nurse in a field hospital. Her father, Peter, is skilled in creating beautiful hats. While the connections between these characters and their experiences can be understood at times, they are not always explicitly stated.
We are instructed to abandon conventional storytelling techniques and embrace a more flexible structure that is connected through association and recurring themes. As one of Michaels’s characters states, “The form is elusive, and that is the form.” Techniques of layering narratives are expertly used as themes resurface and repeat.
The focus on photography and imagery is key, as well as the belief that those who have passed away are never truly gone. Michaels emphasizes that although history may seem like mere debris at times, it also remains a part of our current moment.
Conflict, devastation, and oppression are constantly around us – but so is the possibility of a better future. Paavo, who experiences life under a communist regime, observes that “every time the tyrant tightens the grip, our hope becomes clearer. And nothing angers a tyrant more than hope.”
Although the intricate layout of this piece may pose a difficulty for certain readers, it is evident that Michaels’s writing remains superior to most other fictional works. At its core, this book delves into the concept of preserving goodness and love throughout the passing of time. Michaels believes our ultimate duty is to persevere through the truth.