Ann Michaels' latest book arrived a while ago, The Winter Vault published by Bloomsbury.
The cover beautiful shades of greyscale (dovegrey in fact) with subtle touches of muted pinks and tucked up inside, and not immediately evident,a beauteous pink silk ribbon bookmark, the touch that just warms the cockles.
A few days later a neatly wrapped promotional bundle of Ann Michaels' first novel Fugitive Pieces and The Wedding by John Berger.
I had my welcome introduction to John Berger last year with the Booker longlisted From A to X : A Story in Letters and I've had an aged, yellowing copy of Fugitive Pieces unread on the shelf for years.
I can even explain why unread.
I've started the book so many times but always the beginning has tripped me up and hints of wartime tragedy and sadness have made it 'not the right book for now' or ' another day perhaps.'
But too many people have told me how much they loved it for me to ignore it any longer and the arrival of a new copy seemed to invite a fresh new start, plus knowing that the last Endsleigh Salon theme was My Impossible Book, I could really cross two hurdles with one reading.
I didn't want to read The Winter Vault before Fugitive Pieces, it seemed important for me to get a grip on Ann Michaels' writing through her 1997 Orange Prize and Guardian Fiction Award winner first.
On reflection, this reading of Fugitive Pieces feels akin to the psychological reading equivalent of giving birth.
It's been a long wait, yes there's some pain involved but also the profound significance of a book that moves you into a different place, you can never be the same again, you join a new league of readers, those who have experienced this book and nod at each other sagely and wisely with faces somehow expressing what those who haven't read it can't possibly know.
Once I had traversed my last failing point I was confronted with that timely lesson in bibliohumility too, the moment when you realise that you never stop learning as a reader and hopefully this will be a lifelong affair. Here's another book that would work if I allowed the words to wash over in small showers. It's a book of 'pieces' after all and lent itself perfectly to reading in brief sittings, perhaps only a few pages at a time, not start to finish in one gluttonous gorge.
There is so much grief and sorrow to cope with, such heartbreaking anguish it can almost be overwhelming, too much to bear if you're feeling a bit fragile and perhaps fearful about losses of your own.
So much to dwell on after each sitting as the young and tragically orphaned Jakob is rescued by Athos who takes him back to Greece and into hiding for the remainder of the war.
It is with and through Athos that Jakob will grieve for his family and this will take a lifetime
'Questions without answers must be asked very slowly.'
Whilst Athos also offers him his own history, a second one for Jakob to feel rooted in, Athos is offering Jakob a permanence that war and tragedy have deprived him of.
I think it's significant that I started writing my thoughts down on April 25th and they are only just seeing the light of day because I've struggled to put the impact of this book into words. Also I'm not sure it's possible to have a new and original thought on a book that has been written about so extensively, and reading a piece by Anne Michaels in The Guardian just reinforces my own first and seemingly inadequate reading.
'At the core of Fugitive Pieces is an enquiry into faith - faith in the most general sense of the word; the question of whether it is possible to feel any sort of belief after the worst thing; and if so what this faith might look like, what it might feel like.'
Fugitive Pieces feels like one vast and emotional read, a book that I would want to own in a beautiful, leather-bound edition if such a thing existed.
A book to treasure and return to I think because it's clear that Anne Michaels has invested hugely in the writing of it
'One afternoon...I read something so horrific I could only, for a very long time, sit weeping...I did not return to the book for many months. I was completely silenced. This utter silencing would happen several more times during the decade of thinking about and writing this novel.'
I feel strangely muted and silent too, dumbstruck at what I've read, as if to stroll in and dissect it too much or say too much out loud would somehow do it a terrible disservice.
My thoughts are at a whisper right now.
There was certainly no way I could have read Fugitive Pieces until the time felt right, those earlier failures somehow telling me to wait, but I also know it will take many re-reads before I feel I have come to grips with Anne Michaels 'examination of large questions of history' .
Yet it feels enough for now that a single read has told me as much as it has.
'In the end it is not the writer or Athos who pulls Jakob from the mud, but the reader...loss, grief, shame - these are not the end of the story, they are the middle of the story.'