The Canadian poet Anne Michaels publishes novels so deliberately that each one entrances readers of a new decade. Her debut novel, “Fugitive Pieces,” which tells the story of a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis, appeared in 1996 and won a host of awards including the Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second novel, “The Winter Vault,” about the construction of two civil engineering projects large enough to alter history, was published in 2009.

Michaels’s fans – an intense group that should be larger – will recognize the atmosphere of longing that pervades her gorgeous new novel, “Held.” It’s a story that explores the way intense intimacy manages to thrive in vernal pools of calm during eras of grief and tumult. Perhaps the word “romantic” has been too thoroughly attenuated to use in praise, but “Held” may be one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read.

It’s also one of the most poetic – not just in sentiment but in form. “Held” unfolds in short blocks. One is tempted to call them stanzas. Some are just a couple of lines; others extend for a few pages. Many of these sections demand bridging elisions, catching thematic echoes and restitching a chronology that’s been reordered across almost 120 years.

Michaels’s prose regularly offers up epigraphic sentences that will send some readers in search of a yellow highlighter, others for the exit. Indeed, that choice comes early. “Held” begins: “We know life is finite. Why should we believe death lasts forever?”

In almost anyone else’s work, such observations would sound like bad Ralph Waldo Emerson or good Rupi Kaur, but here they’re as surprising and natural as spring wildflowers.

The novel opens in the eerie silence of a fresh battlefield in France during World War I as “mist smouldered like cremation fires in the rain.” An English soldier named John isn’t sure if the fighting has moved on or if he’s lost his hearing from a mortar shell. Before enlisting, he was a portrait photographer, a man trained to attend to light. “The shadow of a bird moved across the hill,” Michaels writes. “He could not see the bird.” He can, though, see one of his comrades. “The young soldier was lying only a few meters away. How long had the boy been staring? John wanted to call out to him, make a joke of it, but couldn’t find his voice.”


With his “memory seeping,” John finds his thoughts drifting through fragmented profundities and exigencies: “We can only think about the unknown in terms of the known. The speed of light cannot reference time … Somewhere out there were his precious boots, his feet. He should get up and look for them.”

But his mind quickly coalesces around visions of meeting Helena. “She was everything that mattered to him,” Michaels writes. So much of this surprisingly expansive novel is rooted in their first encounter, a charming tale that arises from the bloodied earth that could soon be John’s grave. It’s significant that they met by accident: Helena fell asleep on her train, got off in a strange city and saw a lamp burning in a nearby window. Clearly, it’s a cherished moment they’ve polished between themselves many times. “She would imbue the short walk in the darkness towards that corona of light – the endless fields of invisible grasses rustling around her – with the qualities of a dream,” Michaels writes. “The inevitability of it, the foreknowledge.”

John notices her entering the inn. They’re both a little afraid of each other. “With a great effort past shyness, she asked if he would care to sit with her. Later she would tell him of the feeling that passed through her, inexplicable, momentary, not even a thought: that if he sat down she would be sharing a table with him for the rest of her life.”

“How many countless switch points had been necessary to bring them together at this table,” Michaels wonders, “this country night at the end of summer, under the ancient map of the stars, a map that had already passed out of existence, yet luminous and clear.”

Tender as such moments are in “Held,” Michaels’s real interest is not in the intensity of affection but in its persistence. Can love survive the horrors of war? Can it hover ghostlike beyond the grave?

In hauntingly beautiful vignettes, Michaels turns over metaphysical questions about the relationship between the soul and the body. Given the strange miracle that this warm clay can express and experience love, what are the possibilities, she wonders, of permanently capturing the flutterings of the heart in the fabric of matter?


In one of many curious anecdotes, Michaels describes the intentional mistakes that coastal women knit into their men’s sweaters so, if the worst happens, their drowned bodies can be identified. “The error was a message sent into darkness, the stitch of calamity and terror, a signal to the future, from wife to widow. The prayer that, wherever found, a man might be returned to his family and laid to rest. That the dead would not lie alone. The error of love that proved its perfection.”

The whole novel is spiked with little detonations of awe like that. As Michaels moves back and forth across time, we meet John and Helena’s descendants and others while they struggle with fundamental questions of how love and identity can endure after trauma, even after death – that infinitesimal change, “like the melting or freezing point, just a different cohesion, glassy or crystalline, gas or plasma.” Over the decades, a photographer, a painter, a doctor, a journalist, they all bear witness to unfathomable destruction and yet none of them can relinquish the suspicion that something immaterial remains, “a spiritual radiance inside the material human body.”

If you require a neat, linear plot, beware. “Held” manipulates history and narrative with the same promiscuous verve that Lidia Yuknavitch demonstrated in her spectacular 2022 novel, “Thrust.” But even as these various storylines grow more elliptical, they become more evocative, the cumulative effect of Michaels turning profound issues over in her hands.

Near the end, Marie Curie enters the story with a machine capable of seeing and capturing light far beyond the spectrum of John’s portrait camera. She’s widowed, dogged by scandal and a vicious press, but she knows something lies beyond. The invisible radiation of matter is, perhaps, a metaphor for an animating force outside the realm of science but entirely within the grasp of this capacious novel.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.