The story traces Jakob's childhood life with Athos, whose intellectual curiosity about the world rubs off on him and their joint passion for knowledge and understanding forms a strong bond between the two. After the war they move to Canada where Athos works at the university and Jakob becomes a student, forging new lives for themselves, but Jakob remains locked in to his memories of his family, most strongly of his sister Bella and her piano playing, and mourns their loss, and is resistant to forming new bonds of friendship with others. He earns a living by translating, and makes this interesting observation about the work (lots of quotes coming up as there were so many beautifully observed passages):
"Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another. You can choose your philosophy of translation just as you choose how to live: the free adaptation that sacrifices detail to meaning, the strict crib that sacrifices meaning to exactitude. The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both, like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what's between the lines, the mysterious implications." (p.109)
Then he falls in love with Alex, a relationship doomed to be short-lived, almost because it highlights his lack of a sense of identity, a feeling of not fitting in (I love the final sentence here, a perfect metaphor):
"She went on intellectual benders, arguing all night, leaning against men in crowded bars, stuffing herself with ideals. She was stunning. She was a political debauchee. I didn't have the confidence to argue Canadian politics with her blue-blood Marxist friends. How could I discuss their upper-class communism with them, those who shone with certainty and had never had the misfortune of witnessing theory refuted by fact? I felt maggoty with insecurities; I had European circuitry, my voltage wrong for the socket. (p.132)
But she is so full of life and the future and he is so wrapped up in the past and his losses, and the losses of so many others:
"That they were torn from mistakes they had no chance to fix; everything unfinished. All the sins of love with no detail, detail without love. The regret of having spoken, of having run out of time to speak. Of hoarding oneself. Of turning one's back too often in favour of sleep.
I tried to imagine their physical needs, the indignity of human needs grown to extreme they equal your longing for wife, child, sister, parent, friend. But truthfully I couldn't even begin to to imagine the trauma of their hearts, of being taken in the middle of their lives. Those with young children. Or those newly in love, wrenched from that state of grace. Or those who had lived invisibly, who were never known." (p.147)
Later he meets Michaela, and their relationship can be summed up in this description of their first encounter:
"Standing together on the winder sidewalk, in the white darkness. I know even les than lamplight in a window, which knows how to pour itself into the street and arouse the longing of one who waits.
Her hair and hat circle her quiet face. She's young. There are twenty-five years between us. Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it's almost like joy. Her hat, the snow, remind me of Akhmatova's poem where, in two lines, the poet shakes her fist and then closes her hands in prayer: 'You're many years late,/ how happy I am to see you.' " (p.177)
The second part of the book is about a young man, Ben, who comes into contact with Jakob and eventually is entrusted to go to his home to find journals that he was working on at the time of his death, and how he becomes caught up in Jakob's life and memories. His parents, also post-war immigrants to Canada had endured similar hardship and trauma as Jakob, and his story flashing back and forth into the past, to his own growing up and back again to his parents early years. Ben recounts this (self-imposed) childhood experience of facing his fear of the dark:
"My task was to walk through the woods with the flashlight off until I reached the road, about a quarter of a mile away. If my father could walk days, miles, then I could walk at least to the road. What would happen to me if I had to walk as far as my father had? I was in training. My flannel pyjamas were clammy with sweat. I walked with useless eyes and heard the river, modest knife of history, carving its blade deeper into the earth; rusty blood seeping through the cracked face of the forest. A fine mesh of insects on the heavy breath of the night, the slap of ferns weirdly cold against my ankles - nothing alive could be so cold on such a hot night. Slowly the trees began to emerge from the undifferentiated dark, as if embossed, black on black, and the dark itself was a pale skin stretched across charred ribs. Above the far surf of leaves, a dark skirt of sky rustling against skeletal legs. Strange filaments from nowhere, the hair of ghosts, brushed my neck and cheeks and would not be rubbed away. The forest closed around me like a hag's embrace, all hair and hot breath, bristly skin and sharp fingernails. And just as I felt overwhelmed, sick with terror, suddenly I was in a clear space, a faint breeze over the wide road." (p.220)
Sorry about the long quotes but I just found her writing to intense, so much of it made me want to say to someone, 'just let me read you this bit'. It's hard to put my finger on quite what is so wonderful about this book. The writing is just beautifully acutely observed, the history so meticulously researched and her empathy for her character's experiences is deeply felt. It's that she seems to really understand how some experiences don't just stay with you but continue to affect your life and echo down through history into future generations, and that this is the way it should be, recording and remembering them is vital. This is a novel that does two things, it is in intimate personal story of one man's life and at the same time speaks about all of human experience, never sentimental but essentially life-affirming. Not a read for the fainthearted.