This novel often reminded me of what a brilliant accomplishment Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is. There are parallels. The piecing together of shards, of fugitive pieces, the deployment of one narrative to unravel another, in an attempt to complete biography. It’s not, of course, as good as The Waves – few novels are!
The first part of the novel is narrated by Jakob Beer. He is seven when his parents are murdered by Nazi soldiers. His beloved sister, Bella is abducted and will become the ghost that haunts him his entire life. He is saved while hiding in a forest, sheathed in mud like a golem, by a Greek geologist, Athos Roussos, who takes the boy back to his home on the Greek island of Zakynthos. Athos is the stuff of fairytales – wise, kind, generous, resourceful, deeply knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, especially the natural world: in short, an ideal mentor whose vast and detailed imagination gives Jakob another world to live in. Jakob will eventually become a poet.
The second part of the novel is narrated by Ben, who met Jakob once and is deeply influenced by Jakob’s poetry and goes to the Greek island in an attempt to find the writer’s notebooks after his death. Ben is the son of Holocaust survivors.
The writing is often stunning. There are so many beautiful and deeply profound passages of prose in this novel. But there isn’t always the feeling that this beautiful writing is fused into the narrative. Sometimes these passages appear like isolated magical islands, somehow adrift from the any recognisable world. This novel is very self-consciously poetic. As if Michaels is more concerned with proving to us how beautifully she can write sentences than any of the more rudimentary disciplines of the novelist. By contrast I was reminded of how brilliantly Ondaatje’s poetic passages flow organically into his narratives without bending them out of shape. There’s no ugliness in this novel, nothing of the commonplace. Everything is poeticised. But it poeticises what is already poetic rather than poeticising the ordinary, a more difficult and rewarding feat. Also the sensibility of Ben becomes indistinguishable from the sensibility of Jakob. Again reminding me of how much more successful Woolf was in creating a single biography out of truly disparate and distinctive voices.
I’m really surprised this has been made into a film and am very curious now to see it because it never quite worked for me as narrative. That said, it’s well worth reading for the beauty of the prose. No surprise Anne Michaels is a poet. I’d argue though that she’s a better poet than she is a novelist.