Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 11, 2013

Fugitive Pieces (1996), by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces Fugitive Pieces, the debut novel of acclaimed Canadian poet Anne Michaels,  is a remarkable book, quite overwhelming to read but stunning in its impact.

First published in 1996, Fugitive Pieces won the Books in Canada First Novel Award,  the 1997 Orange Prize for Fiction and the Guardian Fiction Prize.  It was shortlisted for the Giller Award too (the year that Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace won it).    And it’s listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition).

In exquisite lyrical prose, the novel is written in two parts: Part 1 is the story of Jakob Beer, orphaned when the Nazis stormed his Jewish home in a Polish city.

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.

Aged only seven, he survived because he was playing in a hiding space, but hiding becomes a matter of survival after that.  He burrows into the river mud and tries to survive by gathering weeds.  Miraculously, when starvation finally drives him from concealment, he is found by Athos, a Greek scholar who had been exploring the ancient civilisation that lay beneath the city.  Jakob is so pitifully thin that Athos is able to smuggle him out to Greece, the boy undetected, clinging beneath his coat.

They flee to Zakynthos, an island under the Occupation where Athos has his home.  Confined for his own safety to two rooms and an occasional night-time foray to the rooftops, Jakob remains traumatised for a very long time.  His separation anxiety is so profound that he sleeps beside Athos on the floor while Athos works.  Athos instinctively cares for the child with tender concern and an astonishing diet of intellectually stimulating stories.  A polymath, Athos teaches the boy Greek and English, and introduces him to the mysteries of archaeology, geology, botany and literature.  Layer by layer, and in ways that a growing child can understand, he explains a world ordered by science and made comprehensible by classic poetry and world literature.   This is not enough to give the boy a sense of security, nor to assuage his profound grief, but it gives him time and space to cling on to a faint hope that his beloved sister Bella might yet be found, and to meditate on scraps of memory about his parents and a small playmate.


The house on the hilltop is no safe haven, however, not when the somewhat desultory German Occupation changes character and they demand the names of the Jews.  The few short months from July to liberation in September are dreadful and very harrowing to read.

When the war is over and Jakob learns the horror of the Holocaust his nightmares intensify.  Like many Europeans seeking to put the hatreds behind them, Athos emigrates to Canada, but the search for Bella continues.  Jakob is all but consumed by shards of memory and tormented by what he cannot remember.  His is a painful adolescence, and his eventual marriage fails.  For me, this is the most powerful part of the book, because it is unremitting in its depiction of grief and loss.  So much of what we read and see scampers over grief, making it seem like a transient moment in life which fades quickly.  Michaels allows for no such thing.  Jakob is middle-aged before he finds any kind of peace or contentment.

Part II reveals that Ben has been telling this story, from diaries and the poetry written by Athos and Jakob.  Ben is the child of Holocaust survivors, struggling in his own way to make sense of events which define him even though he did not witness them.

Who was it that said that poetry could not be written in a post-Holocaust world?  The achievement of Anne Michaels is that she has used such exquisite, lush language to write about horror and hatred.  It isn’t easy to read, but it’s unforgettable.

Author: Anne Michaels
Title: Fugitive Pieces
Publisher: Bloomsbury 1997, first published 1996
ISBN: 9780747532828
Source: personal copy, an Op Shop find.


Fishpond: Fugitive Pieces


  1. thank you for your review of Fugitive Pieces. I felt about it much as you do; see my review:
    I wonder what research Anne Michaels did for it, and whether she had autobiographical memories for it. It reads as though she was there, inside Jakob’s soul.


    • Hello Christina, how interesting that we both came to this book ‘late’, in the sense that it had its time in the sun so long ago when it won all the prizes.
      I wondered about the catalyst for Michaels to write the book too: perhaps she was just like me, growing up in an area where Holocaust survivors were common and making friends with some of them. Learning their stories at first-hand, or even just a hint of them, shakes one’s perspective: the Holocaust is not, for me, something remote, or ‘history’, it’s the life my friends and neighbours lived. I have always known about the shadows in my friends’ lives, and that their grief is not something anyone else can share, and that it is no one’s place but theirs to forgive, but reading Fugitive Pieces was still an emotional experience for me. So it is lovely to read your review and find that empathy there, thank you.


  2. One of my favourite novels—thanks for this review, Lisa. I adore Michaels’ writing. Her second novel, The Winter Vault, is very high on my cluster of favourites (I won’t say ‘list’ because to hell with hierarchies :-) ).


  3. What a great op-shop find! I hadn’t heard of Michaels, but that snippet, with those ‘white teeth’, is sublime. A poet at work. I’ll have to read it! Thanks, John


  4. This sounds absolutely beautiful and I am annoyed with myself because ‘Fugitive Pieces’ did not appeal to me as a title. Based on your review, it does sound like it should be on all our ‘must read’ lists (or clusters, as Amanda refers to them…I like that)


    • Amanda, Karenlee, I think it’s an author’s ‘must-read’ and John, it’s a treasure for readers too:)


  5. As one who read and liked this when it first appeared (and reread it, but not recently), I am impressed that it seems to have “aged” well.

    I don’t know if you have come across any of John Berger’s works (he won the Booker some years back) but Michaels and he apparently are each other’s “first readers”. From my perspective, both share a commitment to a formality of prose that is distinctive — their “plots” are equally unique (which means that I wouldn’t really compare their work). Berger’s novels are quite short and often show up in used book bins since a lot of people buy them and then discover he is just too weird for their taste. Given what I know of your taste, I’d say worth a try if you find one.


    • Oh Kevin, you know me so well! This is how I concluded my review of John Berger’s G:
      It’s surprisingly easy to follow what happens in the story even though Berger keeps wandering off into sub plots and private reflections about the nature of writing. This technique will probably drive some readers crazy, but if you can tolerate ambiguity and a haphazard structure there is much to enjoy in G. .
      Has Michaels written anything comparable since Fugitive Pieces?


    • Sorry I missed that review of G before submitting my original comment — I did search but obviously messed something up.

      Michaels has only written one novel (The Winter Vault, cited by Amanda in her comment) since Fugitive Pieces. It has a similar structure to this one — the first half set in Egypt (with the building of the Aswan Dam); the latter half back in Canada. I thought the first half succeeded, the second half wandered aimlessly. And I’m afraid, for this reader at least, too often the writing simply overtook the book. Having said that, I do remember parts of it quite well — and would note that Amanda said it is one of her favorites, so don’t put too much weight on my concern.


      • *chuckle* Well no wonder you couldn’t find it, searching for a book called just ‘G’ probably sent the search box into conniptions!
        Did I read a review of The Winter Vault on your blog? The plot sounds familiar now. Perhaps a case of Second novel Syndrome, it’s must be so hard when a first novel is a soaring success, to come up with something as good.


      • It was one of the first reviews on my blog:


        • Gosh, that’s a while ago now. Thanks for the link:)


  6. I read this back not long after it was first published and absolutely loved it. I am so glad you did too. I don’t come across very many who have read it which is too bad since it is such a beautiful book.


    • Did you review it, Stefanie? I’d like to add your URL if you did…


      • No, I read it pre-blogging days. Seems like an eternity ago!


  7. Well, it’s on my wish-list now – I really do want to get to this one, sounds like it might be right up my stack.


    • Absolutely your kind of book, Becky! I wait for your review with bated breath:)


  8. So pleased you loved this one, Lisa. I read it a few years back (it was an op shop find for me, too) and I thought it was wonderful. A very moving exploration of grief.


  9. I read this when it first came out and was so captivated by it I’ve not gone back to re-read it, afraid that it might not be as wonderful as I remember. I have tentatively put it in my TBR pile again though as I really feel there should be a review of it over on my blog since it made such a big impact!


    • I have that fear about books and authors that I love too. I was very disappointed when I ‘went back’ to read an author I was fond of, Alison Lurie. I hadn’t read the book, but I’d read so many of her novels I was sure I was going to love it, but I found it banal. The trouble is that the more we read, the more our tastes grow and develop. And it feels awful when a treasured book no longer pleases, it feels as if the book has betrayed us!


  10. […] and essayist, best known for her award-winning debut novel Fugitive Pieces (1996, see my review here) but also for The Winter Vault (2009) and seven collections of poems.  In 2015 she was the poet […]


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