Canadian poet and novelist Michaels (Fugitive Pieces, 1997) offers a deeply felt novel of ideas that explores loss, displacement, human connection and the “one or two organizing principles” that inform an individual life.
Avery, an engineer whose mother’s family died in the Holocaust, and Jean, a botanist who still mourns her mother’s early death, meet during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which obliterates a community Jean has visited and loved since childhood. Married and living on a houseboat in the Nile while Avery works on dismantling and reassembling Temples during the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1964, they witness the destruction of another entire way of life. After the child that Jean is carrying dies in the womb, she is devastated by the loss and pulls away from Avery. On their return to Canada he suggests they separate. He hopes that giving her freedom will make returning to him possible. Broken hearted, he throws himself into studying architecture while she falls into an affair with an artist. Lucjan, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, is tender but damaged. And although his passion energizes her, he does not attempt to replace Avery in Jean’s affection. Jean and Avery reunite on the anniversary of their baby’s stillbirth. The heightened dialogue is brilliant but longwinded, and Jean and Avery’s finely tuned sensitivities can grow cloying. Lucjan, meanwhile, is almost a romantic cliché. What matters is the painfully beautiful prose with which Michaels brings lost worlds to life.
Readers passionate about history, philosophy and the power of words to bend meaning will swoon for Michaels’ rarefied if oddly impersonal fiction.