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From the archives

The Melmac Years

My peculiar resin d’être

Maple Branches

Who talks of my nation?

Listening In

What recent populist victories tell us about Canada

Blurred Vision

A novel by Anne Michaels

André Forget


Anne Michaels

McClelland & Stewart

240 pages, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

Anne Michaels’s third novel, Held, opens on a scene of carnage. A man named John lies in the mud of the Western Front in 1917, wounded during the battle of Cambrai. As John gazes at the ruins of the French city around him, he contemplates the mysteries of life and death in brief, poetic bursts. He remembers meeting his wife, Helena, and thinks about his mother. His mind turns to the women back home on the Yorkshire coast who knit sweaters with intentional flaws, each “deliberate error in a sleeve, a waistband, a cuff, a shoulder” serving as a signature to identify drowned fishermen. John worries that he will die here, dirty and anonymous, unwashed by the salty waves of the North Sea and without even a gansey to set him apart. A young man watches him with unblinking eyes. “How alert the dead soldier looked,” John thinks, “how absolutely, utterly awake.”

Miraculously, John survives and goes back to Yorkshire. He sets up shop as a photographer, specializing in formal portraits of returning soldiers who have injuries they want disguised or obscured. Business is good, and Helena, a skilled painter, helps him by composing scenic backdrops. Things go wrong when John hires an assistant, Robert Stanley, with Marxist inclinations (rarely a good sign in an Anne Michaels novel). He begins doctoring John’s photos so that apparitions of the soldiers’ deceased friends and relatives appear hovering beside them. John is appalled, but Robert believes his ghostly deceptions are justified by the consolation they provide: “What’s wrong with giving people hope?” Ultimately, it is not the physical injuries John has sustained in combat but Robert’s betrayal that leads him to drown — a death he dreamed of during the war.

Thirty years later, Helena lives alone in London and works as a model for the “figurativist” artist Graham Rhys (a lightly fictionalized Lucian Freud). When they decide to paint each other as “a lark,” Rhys feels threatened by Helena’s skill with a brush. The next day, Helena arrives at his studio and learns she has been replaced by a much younger woman, marking “the first moment she understood her work might be good.” Flash forward to 1984, and Helena’s granddaughter Mara is a nurse specializing in war zone trauma care. She has taken up with a journalist, Alan, whom she met on the battlefield of an unspecified conflict, and, though pregnant, plans to set out for another tour of duty. “I need to go where I’m needed most,” she insists. “Otherwise, what’s the point?” Unsure if he will see her again, Alan drops Mara off at the airport. He joins her father, Peter, and two of Peter’s oldest friends, Sandor and Marcus, to wait out a snowstorm. They sit together through a power outage, trading stories that reflect “decades of understanding and misunderstanding, worship and disappointment.”

Up to this point, about three-quarters of the way through the novel, Held has told an episodic but relatively straightforward story highlighting Michaels’s long-standing obsessions with absence, memory, scientific knowledge, and the history of violence. But the final seventy pages are an increasingly chaotic blur as the story jumps back to France in 1910, forward to the Soviet Union in 1980, back to France again in 1908, England in 1912, England in 2010, and somewhere in the Gulf of Finland in 2025. With each shift in time and place, we are introduced to new characters, all of whom have a connection to Helena and John or their descendants and who are in some way wrestling with complex metaphysical questions about topics like the nature of existence and life after death.

Pondering the aftermath of Cambrai.

Mary Evans Picture Library

Such rapid temporal dislocation coupled with thematic repetition is no doubt intended to reflect one of Held ’s main themes: the long afterlife of the past and the way historical events bleed (sometimes literally) into the present. In her previous novels — Fugitive Pieces, from 1996, and The Winter Vault, from 2009 — Michaels used similar kinds of discontinuity and repetition to masterful effect, creating baroque literary temples in which images, scenes, and characters functioned like mirrors, magnifying, distorting, and transmitting the traumas of history. Crucially, the spaciousness of these narratives gave the poetic brilliance of her lines room to breathe and resonate. In comparison, Held feels less focused and less finished, an architectural sketch rather than a building.

This underdevelopment is a fault of the storytelling rather than the prose. Sentence for sentence, Michaels is as good as she’s ever been. In the trenches, “dawn was a kind of scum over everything.” A sliver of the moon resembles “a piece of bone dislodged, in the carbon black.” After a woman leaves a brightly lit party and closes the door behind her, “the darkness rushed in to heal the wound the light had made.” Characters like John engage in flights of thought as achingly effective as those in any of Michaels’s previous works: “You could put a word in front of your thoughts and see everything through that word—faith, family, war, illness. It could be your own word or someone else’s, like wearing glasses that were the wrong prescription—wrong, or just not yours.”

The problem is that as the plot lines pile up, the recurrence of such self-serious characters —
who ponder the mysteries of consciousness in the midst of battles, who are as well read on physics and chemistry as they are on the classics, who all fundamentally sound the same whatever time or place they are in — starts to feel parodic. One wonders whether these people have ever told a joke or gone to the bathroom.

All writers have their own bags of tricks, of course. But the difference between a compelling and an uncompelling work of fiction often lies in how well authors can make something that is rooted in artifice and intention — a style, a story, a character — seem as if it endures independently of them, as if it already existed and they just wrote it down. Michaels achieved this miracle with Fugitive Pieces, a novel in which her thematic preoccupations found sublime articulation. But in Held, the energy of her ideas dissipates into a cloud of ambient significance. If the narrative had stayed with John and Helena in Yorkshire, slowly teasing out the problems of what it means to live with absence and why we yearn for charlatans who provide easy answers, Michaels could have channelled this energy to devastating effect. As it is, the sum of the parts is, somehow, greater than the whole.

André Forget edited the short story collection After Realism: 24 Stories for the 21st Century.