Photo: Marzena Pogorzaly
Anne Michaels Sees Ghosts Everywhere in Her Latest Novel, ‘Held’
The Toronto poet and 'Fugitive Pieces' author produces a masterful story about how loves allows the dearly departed to live on in hearts and minds, across time / BY Caroline Gdyczynski / November 29th, 2023
If you’ve ever felt the presence of someone you loved and lost, Held, the latest novel by Anne Michaels, will resurface those feelings. “There are many ways the dead show us they are with us,” writes Michaels, the former poet laureate of Toronto. “Sometimes they stay deliberately absent, in order to prove themselves by returning. Sometimes they stay close and then leave in order to prove they were with us. Sometimes they bring a stag to a graveyard, a cardinal to a fence, a song on the wireless as soon as you turn it on. Sometimes they bring a snowfall.”
Held opens as the First World War is ending, and broken soldiers are returning to find their homes are no longer standing and their families are torn apart. “The massive scale of death and massive influx of ghosts from that war” made for a time when so many “longed to be in touch with the dead in a way that was absolutely natural,” the international bestselling author of Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault says in a Zoom video call. “The need for what we can’t hold – can’t see – is overwhelming.”
In the opening scene, we meet John, an English soldier, lying on his back by a riverbank in Cambrai, France, in 1917, after an explosion. He’s falling in and out of consciousness, and holds on to life by recalling some of his most precious memories. When he returns to his village in North Yorkshire, he struggles with war trauma, but the love between him and Helena, a painter, along with the re-opening of his photography studio, helps him make sense of life again.
When John develops a young man’s portrait, ordered as a gift for his father, the man’s mother – who died without being able to say goodbye – appears behind him. At first, John is frightened and doesn’t want anyone to know he is seeing ghosts, but he comes to understand they may be a blessing, concluding, “we are sent only exactly the kind of proof we can believe.”
Readers will empathize with the author’s characters, which include four generations of a family, beginning with great grandparents John and Helena, who live through the war and start a family of their own. After John’s death, Helena raises their daughter, Anna, who becomes an overseas nurse, tending to the sick and wounded in the 1950s. Anna meets and marries Peter, and they have a daughter, Mara, who follows in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a nurse and medic deployed to conflict zones around the world in the 1980s. During one of her missions, Mara meets the love of her life, Alan, a journalist, when they wake up, lying next to each other, after a hospital bombing.
In Held, history is an invisible thread that links memories, without defining the events. Michaels says this was deliberate, to allow readers to bring their own lives into the narrative. “I didn’t want history to be overt in the book, I wanted it to be saturated in that history, but only glinting, or barely glinting at the surface,” she says. “I feel we have to look at the past or look at very specific, well-chosen moments in history to illuminate what’s happening now, because I think we have a natural human instinct to defend ourselves against what’s right in front of us, and to understand or perceive what’s happening through certain lenses.”
Michaels began the novel around the turn of the 20th century because that’s when science and technology ushered in a profound shift in humanity’s perception of the invisible world. The rise of photography, coupled with the post-war reliance on spiritualism, was fertile ground for the novelist to explore the intricate relationship between the visible and the unseen.
“We began to foreclose on something that humanity has always known and valued, which is a relationship to the invisible, a relationship to what we can’t see, what we can’t know, what can’t be proven,” she says. “So, that relationship from the point of view of science, which took over the narrative, and then technology, which took over the narrative – we began to lose that place, that perception of the invisible, that we had always known and valued.”
The award-winning novelist and poet’s brilliance shines as she describes John coming to terms with the ghostly phenomena. “Who can say for certain that those who no longer exist, our dead, do not also reach us? And even those who do not believe, who live in a lead box of disbelief, must nonetheless accept – as the [British atomic] physicist Crookes proved in his experiment – the electrical current we cannot see manifests itself on the plate in the leadlined box, materialises in the dark of disbelief. From grief to belief.”
While Michaels’ characters are fictional, she does make one exception, with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Marie Curie playing a peripheral role. Curie was another example of someone who saw the invisible with her discovery of two new chemical elements, polonium and radium. She was also a mother, wife and friend who showed vulnerability and overcame immense grief after her husband and research partner, Pierre, died in a tragic Paris street accident in 1906.
Each generation of characters find a way to move forward with help from the past. Sometimes it’s through photographs, other times it’s the overwhelming moments when families come together after difficult times apart. Each time the pendulum of grief swings to gratitude, your heart will swell.
“This book wants to explore all the ways that love continues to work past the span of a single life,” Michaels says. “If we’re fortunate, we experience that the way love reaches us from those who are no longer with us. Our perceptions, our values, what we love, who we love, we are exerting a force beyond our own life,” and “allow for a shifted understanding about what we believe.”