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A Trio of Globe-Trotting Novels

Anne Michaels has served as Toronto’s poet laureate, so it’s no surprise that her latest novel, HELD (Knopf, 240 pp., $27), turns a multigenerational family saga into a lyrical jigsaw of images and observations, a trigger to “the long fuse of memory, always alight.” It begins in the trenches of World War I with a soldier’s impressions of what’s essentially a “450-mile grave” and ends in the near future as one of his descendants walks the streets of a city on the Gulf of Finland.

In between, Michaels’s narrative glides gracefully back and forth in time, from North Yorkshire in the 1920s to rural Suffolk in the 1980s, then all the way to 1908 Paris. John, the soldier we first meet in 1917, returns from the war to his wife, Helena, and his photography studio. Haunted by what he has seen (or not seen), he leaves a legacy that will send his daughter and granddaughter to other front lines, this time working in field hospitals and refugee camps, “the most dangerous places.”

Each brief chapter is filled with deftly sketched characters: a war correspondent tasked with writing “what no one could bear to read”; a widow encountering an unexpectedly kindred spirit as she trudges across a snowy landscape; even Marie Curie, whose courage is recalled by one of her closest friends. Throughout, these stories spark both poignant connections and provocative divergences. Those whose lives follow John’s must find their own way to survive in this “new world, with new degrees of grief, many more degrees in the scale of blessedness and torment.”

Survival — and how far a person will go to achieve it — is at the heart of Ally Wilkes’s WHERE THE DEAD WAIT (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 388 pp., $27.99), which her publisher aptly describes as “an eerie, atmospheric Polar Gothic.” William Day was a lowly young fourth lieutenant when the deaths of his superior officers gave him command of a ship stranded in the Arctic ice. He made it back to civilization, but emerged with the cannibalistic moniker “Eat-Em-Fresh Day.” Thirteen years later, his former second-in-command, a dashing American named Jesse Stevens, has gone missing in the very same region. Now, in the winter of 1882, the Admiralty orders Day to go find him.

Complications abound, both logistical and psychological. Day’s relationship with Stevens was intense, to say the very least. And as the new expedition becomes trapped in the Far North, Day is haunted by the earlier group’s travails, presented in alternating chapters. Eating human flesh may not have been the only horrific act committed back then, and new crimes could be uncovered in Stevens’s wake. Even the lost adventurer’s domineering wife, a spirit medium who travels with a “pet skull,” begins to doubt the wisdom of joining this ill-fated mission.

The ice has “swung shut behind them like a cemetery gate,” leading Day’s crew toward a possible mutiny. Haunting visions and ominous clues leave no one’s sanity untested. What is the significance of a hideous mask made from the hide of a killer whale? Of unearthing the figurehead of a ship that was supposed to have sunk hundreds of miles away? True to the novel’s title, there are plenty of dead men waiting to be found. And it’s not just the light that “plays tricks out here.”

One of the shape-shifting tricksters from Chinese folklore is the unlikely yet convincing narrator of Yangsze Choo’s witty and suspenseful THE FOX WIFE (Holt, 400 pp., $27.99). Calling herself Snow, she makes her way through northern Manchuria and Japan in 1908 in female guises, intent on hunting down the man responsible for the death of her cub. In the process, she illuminates the realities of a hidebound society on the brink of change: “If there ever was a time for ghosts and foxes to appear, it’s now,” when the last imperial dynasty is failing and uncertainty is everywhere.

For most of the novel, Snow’s pursuit of a Manchurian named Bektu Nikan runs parallel to another quest featuring Bao, a former teacher who has earned a reputation as an amateur detective. His attempt to investigate the death of a courtesan will eventually lead him to Snow — and the solution of a mystery from his youth, when he and his childhood sweetheart left offerings for the fox god at an improvised altar.

Following various clues, Snow and Bao take the reader into the households of aristocrats and peasants, urban centers and rural villages. Their inquiries will soon enmesh them in the dramas of a merchant family convinced that a curse has doomed their son. Young men dabbling in revolutionary politics and a photographer with a bent for blackmail add complexity to the plot, as do a pair of foxes who masquerade as attractive gentlemen. Shiro is the less savory of the two, fond of romancing rich, bored women. Kuro, a novelist, is more honorable, albeit more enigmatic. But this is Snow’s story, and although she relishes being able to live either as a fox or as a woman, she is aware that “neither are safe forms in a world run by men.”

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