Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Winter Vault

The Winter Vault is a complex, passionate novel about loneliness, destruction, replication, personal loss, and memories of one’s roots, and it requires high levels of patience and concentration if one is to absorb everything that Anne Michaels is trying to say. It is neither a plot-driven nor a character-driven novel and, in fact, those are its weakest elements. Rather, it is a philosophical novel filled with rambling monologues, lessons, and meditations that often have little to do with plot. Further, the book’s main characters, although they can be memorable, often have more the feel of actors being brought on stage simply to make an author’s points than the feel of real, breathing people.

It is 1964 and Avery Escher is in Egypt to save Abu Simbel’s Great Temple from the floodwaters soon to be released by the new Aswan Dam. He is there to oversee the dismantling of the centuries-old Temple so that it can be reconstructed some sixty feet higher in a cliff where it will be safe from the flooding. His wife, Jean, who witnessed a similar event in Canada when ten villages were sacrificed to the waters of the new St. Lawrence Seaway, is in Egypt with Avery, whom she met when he worked the Seaway project.

Jean is saddened by what she sees in Egypt, the displacement of the Nubian people whose government is happy enough to sacrifice them for the greater good of the country. As trainload after trainload of these people are relocated and their ancestral villages are destroyed and flooded, Jean realizes that she and Avery are part of something destructive rather than something positive. When a personal tragedy forces her to return to Canada, she finds that her feelings about her life and marriage have changed and she decides to live alone.

The second half of the book sees Avery largely fading into the background while Jean tries to put her life back together with the help of her new friend, Lucjan, a Polish immigrant who, as a boy, survived the World War II destruction of Warsaw. In Jean, Lucjan has finally found a woman with whom he can share his detailed memories of those days, including how disoriented he was when he first walked the streets of the uncannily accurate replication of the old city completed after the war.

The two halves of The Winter Vault share a common theme but their plots and characters are so different that they read like two novels under one cover. Anne Michaels has published several poetry collections and the prose of The Winter Vault, only her second novel, is often as striking as her poetry. Unfortunately, however, some of her extended passages continue to be vague and distracting no matter how much attention and time a reader gives them. It should also be noted that the decision not to use quotation marks or chapter breaks in this 336-page novel may tempt some readers to abandon it well short of its final page. Those who persevere will, however, have much to think about when they finish The Winter Vault.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. Recently I started a novel one could describe just like you did: "It is neither a plot-driven nor a character-driven novel and, in fact, those are its weakest elements. Rather, it is a philosophical novel filled with rambling monologues, lessons, and meditations that often have little to do with plot. "

    Well, dear reader, I dumped it! After a couple of chapters....

  2. I read Michael's Fugitive Pieces with high hopes. In isolation, her prose can be stunning, beautiful, and jaw-dropping in what it conveys. However, on the whole, her stories can be so weighed down by the language that they fail to gain any forward momentum. You say it perfectly in this review, Sam. I do think her poetry is her real gift. She has unbelievable talent, but the novel isn't her medium.

  3. I felt exactly the same, after reading Fugitive Pieces. There were stunning moments of writing, surrounded by vague and confusing prose, that were clearly talented but also rambling and uninvolving. I was disappointed and found it interesting that you felt similarly about this one. Excellent Review Sam!

  4. I have to admit, Rhapsody, that it was tough slogging for me to get all the way through this long novel. If it had not been a review copy, I would most likely not have finished it.

  5. Sean, thanks for your comments. This is the kind of novel that requires so much concentration and rereading of whole pages that it became work for me rather than pleasure. I do think there was some payoff for having stuck with it all the way through but it is not a book I will remember as a pleasant experience or an experience I would want to repeat.

  6. Leah, I think I did expect so much from the novel going in that my disappointment may have been inevitable. There were some wonderful elements in the book and that's why I rated it as highly as I did - but this one is definitely a chore.

  7. Sam -- I just finished reading this novel tonight and I agree fully with your excellent review. The book has many merits, but it is definitely not for the reader wanting a quick [or even slow] fix, plot-driven thing.
    All the same -- I liked the book, overall.
    I often read for the sheer beauty of the style, and the construction -- and this book has that in spades.

  8. I enjoy that style every so often, too, Cip, but I mostly admire the style more than enjoy it. I did rate it somewhere between "Good" and "Very Good." I could admire the style but it never really started to "flow" as I read it.