book review: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces: A NovelThe backstory: Fugitive Pieces won the Orange Prize in 1997.

The basics:  My library catalog had a better summary than I could write: "It is the story of World War II as remembered and imagined by one of its survivors: a poet named Jakob Beer, traumatically orphaned as a young child and smuggled out of Poland, first to a Greek island (where he will return as an adult), and later to Toronto. It is the story of how, over his lifetime, Jakob learns the power of language--to destroy, to omit, to obliterate, but also to restore and to conjure, witness and tell--as he comes to understand and experience what was lost to him and of what is possible for him to regain."

My thoughts: Fugitive Pieces is the tale of two reading experiences for me. While I was reading it, I was captivated by the language. It's clear Anne Michaels is a poet: "a place so empty it was not even haunted." (p. 61) I wrote down pages and pages of passages. I would mutter "wow," frequently as I read it. Then, I would do something else and would let days pass without picking it up again. I started this book in December and finally finished it last week because it was due back at the library and I couldn't renew it again.

It's not a novel with a lot of action, which isn't normally a problem for me. I like character-driven novels with beautiful language. The problem for me with this novel is that there's not a lot of character development either. It's rather abstract, and the beautiful writing wasn't enough to convince me. There were passages that are almost examples of metafiction: "The present, like a landscape, is only a small part of a mysterious narrative." (p. 48)

Despite my enjoyment of this novel when read in long passages, the very structure of the novel itself hindered this enjoyment. The action broke almost once a page and sometimes more. It's a novel of seemingly infinite vignettes, which is a lovely metaphor for life and stories, but as a reader, it was hard to stay enchanted. Perhaps those drawn to poetry or short fiction would be less bothered by the constant breaking and shifting.

Favorite passage: "Sometimes the body experiences a revelation because it has abandoned every other possibility." (p. 52)

The verdict: Although I loved the language and poetic writing in this novel, there wasn't enough character development or plot to draw me in. Ultimately, Michaels failed at realizing her own passage; she failed to make the beautiful necessary:
Important lessons: look carefully; record you see. Find a way to make beauty necessary; find a way to make necessity beautiful. (p. 44)
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 294 pages
Publication date: February 25, 1997 (it's in paperback now)
Source: my local public library

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  1. If a book doesn't have a great plot, I will take great character development, but when it has neither, and is just sort of abstract, I start to get bored. I don't think I would really like this book based on what you have to say about it, but it's funny that I do think the premise sounds rather interesting. Thanks for your honesty in this review. I appreciated it!

  2. I agree that the language in this novel is stunning, and I do understand how that could overshadow some other aspects of the reading experience, but I don't see how the author has "failed". Beautiful writing is necessary, isn't it?

  3. It almost sounds like long-form poetry or mood poems strung together. The excerpt you shared was great.

  4. From the summary, this sounds like something I would really like. However, the things that detracted from the book for you are just the type of things that bother me: I don't read short stories for the most part, and am not much of a poetry fan. I do love character driven novels, and the language sounds wonderful, but I don't think I could get past the book's structure.
    Thanks for the helpful and honest review :)

  5. I tried reading Winter Vault, her most recent novel, but couldn't get past page 10 for the exact reasons you descibe here. I might give this one a try - but likely not anytime soon.


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