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What I'm Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

Held by Anne Michaels

 Preparing for the extraordinary by evoking the mundane


How do you write about love? Anne Michaels, in her startlingly original and evocative novel, Held, does it by zooming in to a moment of intense and heightened awareness in the lives of six couples who feel a deep and lasting connection with one another. It is a panorama of love, jumping through two centuries from 1908 to 2025 and moving from place to place between France and England.  This panoramic view is made up of fragments of lives we come to know intimately as love inhabits them and then sometimes leaves them, moving between passion to grief to fear.  It's a timely novel because it's also about the destruction to love brought about by war.
This restless narrative, shifting in time and place, gives me an array of strikingly different situations loosely connected to one another as one generation after another creates a life with another person who becomes their beloved. Facing hardships created by death, injury, and loss, each character is a seeker of truth, a bearer of the sensory details of their intimate, everyday relationship with the beloved.
It seems appropriate, for a novel based on a theme, that the pages look different.  There aren't any paragraphs; Michaels writes in blocks of text, each separated by a double space. More fragments than paragraphs, they have a fluidity and looseness that fits the overall episodic structure in this shifting third person point of view novel, mimicking the fragmentary quality of perception.
The characters in Held are so closely observed and intimately described that I recognize their bodies and minds easily when they appear again. Because they're seekers, it makes the reader a seeker too, so that when death visits, and it does so often, it's natural to wonder what happens next, but Michaels goes there too, doing so without any sensationalism so it seems entirely natural.
But is there any cohesion in such an episodic, fragmented approach?  Is there a story?  Yes, but the cohesion is around the idea that a deeply felt love is what we human beings are destined for, and that it follows us through life and into the afterlife; Michaels' characters often see and at other times simply feel, ghostly visitations from their loved ones. 
Here is John, in England in 1920: He's a war-injured portrait photographer, and when he develops a negative of a young man who has came to have his photograph taken as a present for his father, John finds something surprising.  Beside the man whose photograph he took, a a ghostly image takes shape in the darkroom.  This is what he see:
"the young man, beautifully clear and evocatively lit, handsome and whole in body; behind him, the luxurious drapery, the nap of velvet and details of brocade, sharp and precise; and in his hand, a book, Matthew Arnold's Stanzas, even the shadows of the letters embossed on the cover.   And beside him, semi-opaque, but perfectly distinct, an older woman, well dressed, pearl buttons, her fine head and lustrous hair, and her expression of intolerable longing" (56).

That expression of intolerable longing is the manifestation of love. When the young man sees the image he tells the photographer it's his mother. "We never said goodbye. She died when I was in Belgium. She's come to say goodbye" (63).
And then Michaels takes it further, because the manifestation of the supernatural isn't the only thing she's after. What she's more interested in is describing the moment when feeling is at its most intense. She tells us that when John first hands the photograph to his subject, "The young man's face was unreadable—John had never before witnessed such an expression. Beatitude" (63).
And here is John's partner, Helena, remembering how it felt when they first were together:
"One can work hard and listen to the news on the wireless and shout for what's right and fetch bread from the corner shop while the kettle is on, and still be clean and naked, new and untouched, ready to surrender all in a moment, the silk gathering between my legs as we ran up the stairs, the sound of my soft leather handbag falling to the floor inside the front door, the paper bag of groceries, the keys falling from your hand, ready to surrender all, ready to be struck to flame with a single touch" (86).
Over and over, Michaels creates these intensities of emotion because she takes her time with mundane details.  She approaches slowly, evoking ordinary, everyday things: In the first excerpt, what I see initially are the objects and textures visible in the photograph, and in the second, I see the handbag, the bag of groceries, the keys, all of it dropping to the floor as the lovers surrender to passion.  And what a true and wonderfully simple description she gives us in "struck to flame with a single touch."  It's hot and it's romantic and I believe the reason it achieves intensity is because the prelude was a recitation of the ordinary.  Keys, drapery, a book, a handbag: over and over, Michaels takes us to the extraordinary via the route of the ordinary moments of everyday life.
 Michaels, Anne. Held. New York: Knopf, 2024.