This post is part of the LRC’s 25 year anniversary project. We are asking our readers for the most influential Canadian books published in the last quarter century. For more information, click here.
This remarkable and justly celebrated debut novel by the Canadian poet Anne Michaels toils across the entire spectrum of letters. An archeological excavation of hidden strata of memory, pain and loss, it was researched for years like a work of non-fiction while the telling was freighted with the evocative descriptiveness of verse in relaying a fractured, epic narrative.
Leading us through the journey of Jakob Beer, a child in Poland orphaned during the war, saved by a Greek geologist and later brought to Toronto, Michaels transposed textures from her own travels in a work of densely packed metaphorical prose that could anywhere on the page be atomized as poetry. Her achievement was a book rooted in the immediacy of place and still freshly traumatic era while persistently reaching for the cosmological, here present as an existential emergency in which the reckoning is with “the energy of time that alters mass.”
Fugitive Pieces won Britain’s Orange Prize for Fiction and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, among many other awards and accolades en route to becoming a completely unexpected best seller in Europe as well as Canada. But the work’s claim to greatness in Canadian literature is mostly measured by something Michaels has termed “poetic knowing.” That’s a penetrative gaze into obscurity for which you need to consult the book itself.
Salem Alaton teaches journalism at Humber College. He is a former features writer and arts reporter at The Globe and Mail.