Finally, I have finished this one. I was recommended this book some time ago, so when I saw this copy in Reid of Liverpool I was really thrilled. I loved the cover and a quick flick through excited me because the writing was poetic and lyrical and the prologue about lost manuscripts from people who wrote about the holocaust was tantalising.
The story is about a young Jewish boy, Jacob Beer who, while hiding, witnesses the slaughter of his parents and the abduction of his sister, presumably for the death camps, by the Nazi police in Poland. He survives living in the marshland outside the town until he is rescued by Athos, a Greek naturalist/geologist/scientist who smuggles the 7 year old to his home on Zakynthos where he stays hidden until the end of the war. They move then to Toronto where, many years later Athos dies and Jacob becomes an academic and later a writer, but is tortured by his war experiences and survivors guilt. His marriage fails and he eventually finds some solace with Michaela. The last part of the novel follows Ben, a man brought up in Toronto but whose parents were holocaust survivors. He meets Jacob at a party and finds some of his own peace in Jacob's writing.
Some of this novel is beautifully descriptive, moving and inventive. Every now and then I would read a sentence that blew me away...
"I learned the power we give to stones to hold human time."
speaking of temples and Cairns. There were also some shocking descriptions of cruelties that came without warning to draw you back to the relevance of the times...
"Jews were filling the corners and cracks of Europe, every available space. They buried themselves in strange graves, any space that would fit their bodies, absorbing more room than was alloted them in the world."
After enjoying the first chapter I believed that I was in for a real treat of a book and I was very enthusiastic about it. However I wasn't far into it before I realised it wasn't holding my interest consistently. It was clear that meticulous research had taken place prior to writing the book, but its knowledgeable sections about geology, philosophy or other academia, while impressive, were quite a slog and my interest began to wane. There were whole sections of the book where my attention wandered and I was not bothered to recount the lines to re enlighten myself. I felt that these sections compromised any plot or character development so that I did not care much about them. I was feeling very little at all. There is no doubt that Anne Michaels is a talented writer but it almost seemed that she flexed her literary muscles too much at times so that this seemed to be more of a poem than a novel.
I also had a problem when the narrative voice took Ben's persona in the last section, mainly because there is no warning of this and the voice still sounds exactly like Jacob. I was quite a way through before I realised we were now witnessing someone elses story. Quite a lot of the last section is also quite hard to decipher, and I found some of the plot lines are confusing and almost deliberately contradictory or vague and unexplained. At this point though I just wanted to get it finished and was beyond trying to clear up any anomolies.
Its a shame because I really wanted to enjoy it and when its words lit up, I felt inspired by it. But I don't think these interludes were enough for me. There are sections of this book that I don't even remember reading and that is not good for me.
I realise that there are millions who count this book among there favourites, if not the best book ever. It has also won quite a few awards. But there are also others who feel like me, and blogger/writer Elizabeth Baines has eloquantly described some of the problems that I have tried to write about here.
There is also a reading group guide because as you can imagine there is a lot for discussion in this book, both subject matter and style.
Some moments of magic but also disappointing so mixed feelings with this one.