Anne Michaels’ startlingly beautiful novel tells the interlocking stories of two men from different generations whose lives have been transformed by war.
A young boy, Jakob Beer, is rescued from the mud of a buried Polish city during the Second World War and taken to an island in Greece by an unlikely saviour, the scientist and humanist Athos Roussos. There, in the seclusion and tenderness of Athos’s house, they spend the last years of the Occupation in a precarious refuge made lavish with poetry and cartography, botany and art.
At war’s end, Athos accepts an invitation to the University of Toronto’s new geography department, headed by a former member of Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition. Jakob learns the terrain of this city, built in the bowl of a prehistoric lake, just as he discovers the insistent nature of the layered past. His loss surfaces in all its complexity as does the haunting question of his sister’s fate. It is in Toronto that Jakob will meet his first wife – the animated, exhilarating Alex – and begin his career as translator and poet.
In the novel’s second part, Ben, a young professor and an expert in the drama of weather and biography, meets the now sixty-year-old Jakob and his ardent and glorious Michaela at the home of a mutual friend. The quiet elation Ben senses in the older man, and Ben’s own connection to the wounding legacies of the war, kindle a fascination with Jakob and his writing, disturbing the safety of his carefully ordered world.