fri 12/04/2024

Anne Michaels: Held review - one story across time | reviews, news & interviews

Anne Michaels: Held review - one story across time

Anne Michaels: Held review - one story across time

Fragments span the genration gap in this daring family saga of inheritance and trauma

Anne Michaels builds on the work of her prize-winning debutCredit: Marzena Pogorzaly

Near the end of My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s prize-winning 2016 novel, a creative writing teacher tells Lucy, ‘you will only have one story […] you’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story.’ The advice might sound reductive – as though every writer is a kind of one-trick pony – but it’s meant to be reassuring, to legitimate a writer as a creature of obsession and habit.

Anne Michaels’ third and most recent novel, Held, is not about the Holocaust, as her debut, Fugitive Pieces, was, but in its themes of memory, war, and personal ghosts, we see her continually revisit her preoccupations.

One of Michaels’ central characters is Mara, a doctor who likes books that ‘begin again at the middle, the way life so often did’. This is a more or less perfect description of Michaels’ own book, which begins over and over, each story picking up the thread of a century-spanning family saga. We begin with John in 1917, wounded in the trenches and remembering his artist wife, Helena. Then there’s their daughter Anna, a doctor consistently pulled away from her family by warzone work – much like her own daughter, Mara, who eventually abandons the battlefields and brings an end to her husband’s constant grief. (Her own father was not so lucky.) Trauma is thus handed, baton-like, between generational gaps.

‘Gaps’ is the key word here. Michaels must be one of the few writers today who can pull off writing in fragments, a style à la mode in contemporary literature but one that often risks prioritising concision over substance. But Michaels is a poet and so the style makes sense, each fragment almost a miniature stanza. And as with some poems, this means the narrative gives preference to strings of images felt through metaphor and simile: ‘Light’ is ‘magnesium’; ‘the sky is porcelain’; snow, ‘floating like stars, added its own silence’. Michaels only treads on dangerous ground when she strays too close to aphorisms – ‘desire permeates everything’ – but it’s otherwise a clever technique for a book so concerned with memory, and often I found myself reading back over whole paragraphs just for the pleasure of it.

HeldThe result is a kind of concertina structure, which stretches and then compresses again as we jump between countries and time periods. In less careful hands, this might have been incredibly confusing, but Michaels is always guiding us with carefully placed parallels. Mara has shellshock-induced nightmares, just like her grandfather John — and indeed Jakob in Fugitive Pieces — so worries sensibly that they will echo again: ‘Do you think my nightmares contaminate our baby?’ she whispers to her husband, Alan, in the dead of night. In one chapter, set in Finland in 2025, another Anna is pursued by Aimo, whom we recognise as a child from another story. The invisible stories that cement these links feel just as significant as the ones Michaels gives us, and there’s a particular satisfaction that comes from spotting them.

Which leads me to a peculiar thing: space and time. They’re strange in this novel, and characters are often aware of a ‘shadow time’, where events that never happened live as much of a full life as those that did. The effect is eerie: Helena walks to a pub where she first meets John and ‘the endless fields of invisible grasses’ rustle around her, ‘with the inevitability of it, the foreknowledge’. As John is dying, walking into water, he ‘turn[s] to see Helena beside him’, and is comforted by her warmth. Moments like this are frequent, and you sense Michaels pushing at what we know as “history”, where ‘what happened’ is defined less by written-down events as it is by a person’s inner consciousness.

She is best, however, on romantic relationships. Such an accomplishment should not go understated – to write about love is to make your writing instantly vulnerable to cliché, to risk injustice done to the subject's magnitude. By acknowledging this challenge, though, I think Michaels frees herself to meet it. Mara, for example, ‘could never imagine a time when she would be able to explain all [Alan] was to her’.

To ‘explain’ love’s hugeness, then, Michaels goes smaller. John finds consolation remembering details, like his wife’s ‘tweed coat with velvet under the collar’, wondering ‘how many times had he felt that velvet when he held open her coat for her…a finite number?’ Then there’s the simple pleasure of sharing a bed with another person, being held ‘with penetrating gentleness’, Alan’s head against Mara’s hipbone, ‘above him, invisible, her face in the dim room’.

These scatterings of love sit almost daringly alongside the scenes of war. Michaels seems to offer them knowing that love cannot be a restorative answer to destruction. But this contrast also constitutes her ‘one story’ – beautifully and sensitively accomplished – and readers should feel lucky to have it here, all over again.

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