Spotlight on “Held” by Anne Michaels

by LitStack Editor

Held – We know life is finite. Why should we believe death lasts forever?

Held and author Anne Michaels

About Held

A breathtaking and ineffable novel of love and loyalty across generations, at once sweeping and intimate.

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 as the snow falls—a chance encounter in a pub by a railway, a hot bath with his lover on a winter night.

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

So begins a narrative that spans four generations of connections and consequences that ignite and reignite as the century unfolds. In radiant moments of desire, comprehension, longing, and transcendence, the sparks fly upward, working their transformations decades later.

Held is affecting and intensely beautiful, full of mystery, wisdom, and compassion, a novel by a writer at the height of her powers. 

ISBN-13: 9780593536865
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/30/2024
Source: Publisher


Editorial Reviews for Held

Publishers Weekly

The luminescent latest from Canadian novelist and poet Michaels (Fugitive Pieces) follows a family across generations through love and war. The story opens in 1917 Cambia, France, where John, an English soldier fighting in WWI, lies wounded in the snow and thinks of his artist wife, Helena. Three years later, reunited with Helena but traumatized from battle, John attempts to continue his work as a portrait photographer. He’s both frightened and awed when he discovers that his photographs contain ghostly images of the subjects’ loved ones. 

The narrative then jumps to 1984, when Helena and John’s granddaughter Mara, a doctor who is four months pregnant, leaves her widowed father Peter and her journalist husband Alan in Suffolk, to join her former medical team in an unnamed war-torn country. Another section takes place in 1903 Paris during a seance with medium Madame Palladino and a group of scientific observers, including the Curies. 

Michaels links the various threads by exploring the thin divide between the living and the dead and the ways memory can carry her characters between worlds. Her stunning prose sustains the book’s enchanted mood from start to finish (John remembers how as a child, his grandfather’s boots were like “two holes into which his own child-legs could vanish entire”; Helena sees her middle-aged body as “A pear turning soft in the bowl”). Each page of this masterpiece has a line worth savoring. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

Kirkus Reviews

A poetic exploration of the liminal spaces and invisible forces in our lives. Canadian poet and novelist Michaels artfully extracts, and reweaves, the often-invisible threads connecting the lives of her characters—some fictional, some historical—from the early 1900s to the near future. 

The scarifying effects of war are made obvious from the outset through the thoughts and memories of John, a British soldier lying gravely wounded on a World War I battlefield. As the interrelated characters move through the years, traumas, and relationships of their lives, those initial musings are among the topics Michaels explores, including the persistence of desire, the effects of observation on the observed, the finite nature of life versus the (purported) unending nature of death, the presence of the past at all points in life. 

The physics and metaphysics of life come under Michaels’ microscope, but the arts and sciences of photography and radiography are employed as well. (Marie Curie and her acquaintances appear as regular people, not icons of scientific discovery.) Meandering back and forth across generations, Michaels’ narrative captures moments of winsome (apparent) coincidence as well as heartbreaking sorrow; more than one young woman loses a husband to death and the threat of war echoes across generations. 

What is consistent throughout the interwoven lives of the photographers, hat makers, artists, war correspondents, and international crisis workers presented here is the persistent examination of what forces brought them to their destinations. The possibilities include love, chance, particle theory, hope, and desire; Michaels’ poetic amalgamation of the lot results in a multi-layered and subtle discussion of what keeps animating the web of existence.

A gorgeous meditation on whether the ghost in the machine is actually in our hearts.


Praise for Held

“Anne Michaels’s compelling novel, Held, couldn’t be more timely: war and its damages, passed through generations over a century. Through luminous moments of chance, change, and even grace, Michaels shows us our humanity—its depths and shadows.”—Margaret Atwood, via Twitter

Held is “Sublime… The joys and sorrows of passionate love and grief and the physics of memory are conveyed through the characters’ profound and lyrical musings…. Michaels brings her poet’s finesse and soulfulness to this exquisite, deeply moving paean to love and life’s insistence and beauty.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)

“I was blown away by the scale, beauty, weave and thinking of this book [Held]…. It dances with words, time and ideas in a way that seems to reinvent everything I know about the novel…and it’s such a transporting read too. It’s exquisite—I am in awe.”—Rachel Joyce, author of Miss Benson’s Beetle

About Anne Michaels, Author of Held

Held author Anne Michaels

ANNE MICHAELS’s books have been translated into more than forty-five languages and have won dozens of international awards, including the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. She has been short-listed for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, twice short-listed for the Giller Prize, and twice long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her novel Fugitive Pieces was adapted into a feature film. From 2015 to 2019, she was Toronto’s poet laureate. She lives in Canada.

You can find and follow Anne Michaels on her beautiful website, and on X (formerly Twitter).

Titles by Anne Michaels

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