"The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth. Then silence. My mother had been sewing a button on my shirt. She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the rim of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little white teeth.”
Jakob Beer is seven when soldiers break into his home, killing his family while he hides behind a wall. Disoriented and afraid, he travels the forests of Poland at night until he comes upon Athos Ruossos at Biskupin, an archaeological site. Athos takes the boy in and brings him to the Greek island of Zakynthos where they endure the war together. Soon after, Athos decides the best thing for Jakob is to emigrate, to Canada specifically. There Jakob grows up, following in Athos' footsteps and falls in love with a woman quite unlike himself. But in the back of his mind he knows he still has to confront the traumatic memories of his past, lest they consume him.
Anne Michaels is primarily known as a poet and this is reflected in the book. Her diction and sentence structure flow like water and there are some choice quotes that will give you pause. It was a pleasure to devour her words as they created wonderfully vivid imagery, evoking joy and sadness. Some of her paragraphs contain an element of violence and gore but are written so beautifully that you can't help but admire them.
"When the prisoners were forced to dig up the mass graves, the dead entered them though their pores and were carried through their bloodstreams to their brains and hearts. And though their blood into another generation. Their arms were into death up to the elbows, but not only into death – into music, into a memory of the way a husband or son leaned over his dinner, a wife’s expression as she watched her child in the bath; into beliefs, mathematical formulas, dreams. As they felt another man’s and another’s blood-soaked hair though their fingers, the diggers begged forgiveness. And those lost lives made molecular passage into their hands."
While I appreciated Michaels' mastery of words, I felt somewhat lost in the story. The plot feels subservient to the diction and I think this is where Michaels' expertise as a poet does her a disservice. I never felt grounded as the story had a fragmented quality to it and at times I wasn't sure what was happening, a dealbreaker in my mind.
There's also a second narrative introduced quite late in the book, in a voice other than Jakob's. I didn't want to abandon him and pick up with another character only 100 pages from the end of the story. It was unnecessary, distracting and this second voice was too similar to Jakob's to have any impact on the reader in terms of seeing the book from a different perspective.
In the end, this book is about memory and loss and how we have to learn to let people go, how we can never go home again but learn to make a home for ourselves, to make other people our home.