Winner 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction
Searing the mind with stunning images while seducing with radiant prose, this brilliant first novel is a story of damaged lives and the indestructibility of the human spirit. It speaks about loss, about the urgency, pain and ultimate healing power of memory, and about the redemptive power of love. Its characters come to understand the implacability of the natural world, the impartial perfection of science, the heartbreak of history. The narrative is permeated with insights about language itself, its power to distort and destroy meaning, and to restore it again to those with stalwart hearts. During WWII, when Jakob Beer is seven, his parents are murdered by Nazi soldiers who invade their Polish village, and his beloved, musically talented 15-year-old sister, Bella, is abducted. Fleeing from the blood-drenched scene, he is magically saved by Greek geologist Athos Roussos, who secretly transports the traumatized boy to his home on the island of Zakynthos, where they live through the Nazi occupation, suffering privations but escaping the atrocities that decimate Greece's Jewish community. Jakob is haunted by the moment of his parents' death‘the burst door, buttons spilling out of a saucer onto the floor, darkness‘and his spirit remains sorrowfully linked with that of his lost sister, whose fate anguishes him. But he travels in his imagination to the places that Athos describes and the books that this kindly scholar provides. At war's end, Athos accepts a university post in Toronto, and Jakob begins a new life. Yet he remains disoriented and unmoored, trapped by memory and grief, "a damaged chromosome"‘the more so after Athos' premature death. By then, however, Jakob has discovered his métier as poet and essayist and strives to find in language the meaning of his life. The miraculous gift of a soul mate in his second wife, "voluptuous scholar" Michaela, comes late for Jakob. Their marriage is brief, and ends in stunning irony. The second part of the novel concerns a younger man, Ben, who is profoundly influenced by Jakob's poetry and goes to the Greek island of Idhra in an attempt to find the writer's notebooks after his death. Ben is another damaged soul. The son of Holocaust survivors, he carries their sorrow like a heavy stone. Emotionally maimed and fearful, Ben feels that he was "born into absence... a hiding place, rotted out by grief.'' Yet when it seems that the past will go on wreaking destruction, Jakob's writings, and the example of his life, show Ben the way to acknowledge love and to accept a future. These intertwined stories are related by Canadian poet Michaels in incandescent prose, dark and tender and poetically lyrical. A bestseller in Canada, the novel will make readers yearn to share it with others, to read sentences and entire passages aloud, to debate its message, to acknowledge its wisdom. 35,000 first printing. (Mar.)
'This is a novel to lose yourself in; let the language pour over you, depositing its richness like waves lapping sand onto a beach. Michaels is a novelist of unusual and compelling power' The Times 'All but a handful of contemporary novels are dwarfed by its reach, its compassion, its wisdom ... This is a book to read many times. I simply can't imagine a better being published this year' Independent
YA‘A survivor of his family's annihilation by the Nazis, young Jakob Beer hides in a Polish forest alone and traumatized, longing for his parents and sister Bella. He stumbles upon a Greek scientist, Athos Roussos, and is smuggled to the Greek island of Zakynthos. The novel, written like a memoir, weaves together Jakob's memories of his family and his life with Athos into a tapestry of pain and eventual healing. Reminiscent of Elie Wiesel's Night (Bantam, 1982), Michaels's language creates haunting images of sorrow, pain, loss, and self-discovery. Jakob becomes a poet and survives both Athos's death and an ill-conceived marriage before he finds love and peace. Ben, a professor who is the child of deeply wounded Holocaust survivors, meets Beer before his death and, through the man's poetry and notes, confronts his own family horrors and finds reconciliation. The memoirs flow back and forth freely and may be difficult for some YAs to follow. However, this is a stunning first novel that attests to the strength of the human spirit.‘Carol DeAngelo, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Who says first novelists have it tough? Michaels's debut was a No. 1 best seller in her native Canada, where it has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize. Protagonist Jakob Beer, who as a child was smuggled out of World War II Poland, looks back on life as a perennial "fugitive."