1917. On a battlefield near the River Escaut, John lies in the aftermath of a blast, unable to move or feel his legs. Struggling to focus his thoughts, he is lost to memory as the snow falls--a chance encounter in a pub by a railway, a hot bath with his lover on a winter night.
1920. John has returned from war to North Yorkshire, near a different river. He is alive but still not whole. Reunited with Helena, an artist, he reopens his photography business and tries to keep on living. But the past erupts insistently into the present, as ghosts begin to surface in his pictures: ghosts with messages he cannot understand.
Michaels is a Canadian poet, essayist and fiction writer, and her radiant novel harnesses this doubleness, finding points of contact between the physical world of mortality and the abstract realm of remembrance ... Her imagery shimmers with metaphoric significance ... Strange, lovely.
Her alchemical abilities are undimmed. It is really a novel-in-stories, delivering a series of pivotal junctures in the lives of a string of characters — some obviously linked, others more tenuously. Spanning the 20th century and reaching into the near future, this series of decisive moments presents love, both romantic and familial, as a temporary balm to inevitable loss ... The elliptical delivery makes it difficult to gain purchase on the book’s overall structure ... Yet these flaws do not undermine the power of the family story at the book’s heart. There is a truth to the humanity she depicts, and the idea that in the harshest moments just the simple presence of another person can provide relief. That is the touching embrace of the title.