Anne Michaels has served as Toronto’s poet laureate, so it’s no surprise that her latest novel, HELD (Knopf, 240 pp., $27), turns a multigenerational family saga into a lyrical jigsaw of images and observations, a trigger to “the long fuse of memory, always alight.” It begins in the trenches of World War I with a soldier’s impressions of what’s essentially a “450-mile grave” and ends in the near future as one of his descendants walks the streets of a city on the Gulf of Finland.
In between, Michaels’s narrative glides gracefully back and forth in time, from North Yorkshire in the 1920s to rural Suffolk in the 1980s, then all the way to 1908 Paris. John, the soldier we first meet in 1917, returns from the war to his wife, Helena, and his photography studio. Haunted by what he has seen (or not seen), he leaves a legacy that will send his daughter and granddaughter to other front lines, this time working in field hospitals and refugee camps, “the most dangerous places.”
Each brief chapter is filled with deftly sketched characters: a war correspondent tasked with writing “what no one could bear to read”; a widow encountering an unexpectedly kindred spirit as she trudges across a snowy landscape; even Marie Curie, whose courage is recalled by one of her closest friends. Throughout, these stories spark both poignant connections and provocative divergences. Those whose lives follow John’s must find their own way to survive in this “new world, with new degrees of grief, many more degrees in the scale of blessedness and torment.”
Survival — and how far a person will go to achieve it — is at the heart of Ally Wilkes’s WHERE THE DEAD WAIT (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 388 pp., $27.99), which her publisher aptly describes as “an eerie, atmospheric Polar Gothic.” William Day was a lowly young fourth lieutenant when the deaths of his superior officers gave him command of a ship stranded in the Arctic ice. He made it back to civilization, but emerged with the cannibalistic moniker “Eat-Em-Fresh Day.” Thirteen years later, his former second-in-command, a dashing American named Jesse Stevens, has gone missing in the very same region. Now, in the winter of 1882, the Admiralty orders Day to go find him.
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