Searing the mind with stunning images while seducing with radiant prose, this brilliant first novel is a story of damaged lives and the indestructibility of the human spirit. It speaks about loss, about the urgency, pain and ultimate healing power of memory, and about the redemptive power of love. Its characters come to understand the implacability of the natural world, the impartial perfection of science, the heartbreak of history. The narrative is permeated with insights about language itself, its power to distort and destroy meaning, and to restore it again to those with stalwart hearts.
During WWII, when Jakob Beer is seven, his parents are murdered by Nazi soldiers who invade their Polish village, and his beloved, musically talented 15-year-old sister, Bella, is abducted. Fleeing from the blood-drenched scene, he is magically saved by Greek geologist Athos Roussos, who secretly transports the traumatized boy to his home on the island of Zakynthos, where they live through the Nazi occupation, suffering privations but escaping the atrocities that decimate Greece’s Jewish community.
Jakob is haunted by the moment of his parents’ death the burst door, buttons spilling ut of a saucer onto the floor, darkness and his spirit remains sorrowfully linked with that of his lost sister, whose fate anguishes him. But he travels in his imagination to the places that Athos describes and the books that this kindly scholar provides. At war’s end, Athos accepts a university post in Toronto, and Jakob begins a new life. Yet he remains disoriented and unmoored, trapped by memory and grief, “a damaged chromosome” the more so after Athos’ premature death.
By then, however, Jakob has discovered his mtier as poet and essayist and strives to find n language the meaning of his life. The miraculous gift of a soul mate in his second wife, “voluptuous scholar” Michaela, comes late for Jakob. Their marriage is brief, and ends in stunning irony. The second part of the novel concerns a younger man, Ben, who is profoundly influenced by Jakob’s poetry and goes to the Greek island of Idhra in an attempt to find the writer’s notebooks after his death. Ben is another damaged soul. The son of Holocaust survivors, he carries their sorrow like a heavy stone.
Emotionally maimed and fearful, Ben feels that he was “born into absence… hiding place, rotted out by grief. ” Yet when it seems that the past will go on wreaking destruction, Jakob’s writings, and the example of his life, show Ben the way to acknowledge love and to accept a future. These intertwined stories are related by Canadian poet Michaels in incandescent prose, dark and tender and poetically lyrical. A bestseller in Canada, the novel will make readers yearn to share it with others, to read sentences and entire passages aloud, to debate its message, to acknowledge its wisdom. 35,000 first printing.