Anne Michaels

Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
United Kingdom
28 November 2023


Anne Michaels

1917. On a battlefield near the River Escaut, John lies in the aftermath of a blast, unable to move or feel his legs. Struggling to focus his thoughts, he is lost to memory a chance encounter in a pub by a railway, a hot bath with his lover on a winter night, his childhood on a faraway coast as the snow falls.

1920. John has returned from war to North Yorkshire, near another river alive, but not still whole. Reunited with Helena, an artist, he reopens his photography business and endeavours to keep on living. But the past erupts insistently into the present, as ghosts begin to surface in his pictures- ghosts whose messages he cannot understand.

So begins a narrative that spans four generations, moments of connection and consequence igniting and re-igniting as the century unfolds. In luminous moments of desire, comprehension, longing, transcendence, the sparks fly upward, working their transformations decades later.

Held is a novel like no other, by a writer at the height of her powers - affecting and intensely beautiful, full of mystery, wisdom and compassion.


Fellow fans of Anne Michaels’ novels will have learnt the art of patience: Michaels’ prize-winning debut, Fugitive Pieces (a key touchstone in my personal reading autobiography, as it will be for many people) was written in 1997, and was followed some twelve years later by The Winter Vault (2009). Her third novel is Held, and it is out in December this year. The anticipation that might have built across this time is completely justified.

It is hard to describe this book in a pithy 300-word précis, despite its perfectly brief extent (220 pages), and I fear I’ve failed in person when describing it to colleagues too. The work is set across the sweep of a century, beginning on the battlefields of France in 1917, and moving back and forth in time, arriving ultimately in the very near future in the Gulf of Finland in 2025.

Time, memory, history, and the traces of life left or reanimated in representational and non-representational form are recurring themes in Michaels’ work. Her poetic sensibility enables the distillation of these concerns into some of the most beautiful writing, including one section which caused me to pause, reread, and wonder whether I’d just read the most precise and sublime history of life on Earth in one page.

This book pushes both form and content, and as you might be able to tell, I’m in awe of it and its writer’s skill. For me, Held is a book about the experience of reading, and the places literature can still take us. It’s a marvel.

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