When poets try to write novels, they sometimes fail, since the ability of poets to find deep meaning in words and phrases cannot always be sustained for greater length of novels. When they succeed, the result can be utterly engrossing. Michaels writes of a possible situation--a Greek poet who rescues Jakob, a Jewish boy, hiding in Poland during World War II after his parents and older sister were taken by the Nazis--and a possible place, the Greek poet's island home where the boy grows up and the poet grows old. Jakob himself becomes a poet, and moves to Canada. The book traces a second story as well, one of Jakob's readers, who meets Jakob and eventually travels to the island.
Woven into the story are reflections on memory and knowledge: and many concrete references. Perhaps that is the great link between poetry and the novel, that both can turn to concrete things--lemons on a Greek island, a river in Canada in flood, objects that are real in themselves, that can be metaphors, and that reveal the fragile precious quality of human existence and human connection. And this concreteness, like the immediacy of Jakob and the poet and the other characters, has remained with me since I've read this book, making me in some small but significant way more tender and appreciative, more alive.