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The Winter Vault Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 21, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Profound loss, desolation and rebuilding are the literal and metaphoric themes of Michaels's exquisite second novel (after Fugitive Pieces). Avery Escher is a Canadian engineer recently moved to a houseboat on the Nile with his new wife, Jean, in 1964. Avery's part of a team of engineers trying to salvage Abu Simbel, which is about to be flooded by the new Aswan dam. His wife, Jean, meanwhile, carries with her childhood memories of flooded villages and the heavy absence of her mother, who died when she was young. Now, the sight of the entire Nubian nation being evacuated from their native land before it's flooded affects both Avery and Jean intensely. Jean's pregnancy seems a possible redemption, but their daughter is stillborn, and Jean falls into despair, shunning the former intimacy of her marriage. When the couple returns to Canada, they set up separate lives and another man enters the picture. Michaels is especially impressive at making a rundown of construction materials or the contents of a market as evocative as the shared moments between two young lovers. A tender love story set against an intriguing bit of history is handled with uncommon skill. (May)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Anne Michaels has published several acclaimed poetry collections, including The Weight of Oranges and Miner’s Pond. Her background as a poet shines through in The Winter Vault, which awed critics with its many elegant, vibrant, and luminous passages and Michaels’s endless curiosity about science, engineering, and architecture. Unfortunately, many of these same critics were conflicted in their overall reviews: they reluctantly felt hampered by rolling monologues, pedantic segments, uninspiring characters, and an awkward story structure. The San Francisco Chronicle even remarked: “[T]hese long recitations of memory and conjecture, while exquisite, grow exhausting.” Overall, critics cited this latest from Michaels as a beautiful, important novel, but they were skeptical of its widespread appeal.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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Top Customer Reviews
The start is promising. The setting is Egypt in 1964, during the construction of the Aswan High Dam that will hold back the Nile, creating the huge Lake Nasser, and displacing thousands of Nubian villages. One of the engineers supervising the removal of the temples of Abu Simbel to higher ground is Avery Escher, who lives on a small houseboat with his new wife, Jean. The story of their courtship and marriage in Canada is interwoven with their year in Egypt, as both Avery and Jean are affected by the human tragedies that they see around them, and by a loss that touches them more personally. Something of Anne Michaels' evocative scale of reference, together with a poesy that can veer into silliness, can be seen from the following:
"When Avery lay next to his wife, waiting for sleep, listening to the river, it was as if the whole long Nile was their bed. [...] The river, he felt, heard every word, wove every sigh into itself, until it was filled with dreaming, swelled with the last breath of kings, with the hard breathing of labourers from three thousand years ago to that very moment. He spoke to the river, and he listened to the river, his hand on his wife in the place their child would some day open her, where his mouth had already so often spoken her, as if he could take the child's name into his mouth from her body. Rebecca, Cleopatra, Sarah, and all the desert women who knew the value of water."
These lines speak of the passage of time, but they are also filled with the possibility of renewal. And renewal will be needed, since the book as a whole is about loss and the difficulty of recovering from loss. Although not a Holocaust novel as FUGITIVE PIECES had been, it still has the specter of the Holocaust lurking in the background; the book is an extended Kaddish for lost peoples, lost places, and losses too personal to name. A winter vault, it turns out, is a small sanctified building that houses the dead while the ground is too frozen for burial. "The winter dead wait... for the earth to relent and receive them. They wait, in histories of thousands of pages, where the word love is never mentioned." In this book, the word love is mentioned many times, and perhaps that love will be enough to achieve a proper burial and rebirth -- but by the end, the writing has become too disjointed for the reader to know or perhaps care.
The trouble is that the winter vault image is pasted into the book, not experienced directly. As she had done in FUGITIVE PIECES, Michaels goes off in a new direction about halfway through, introducing new characters who have only a peripheral relationship to the protagonists. The lines above are spoken to Jean by a Polish artist named Lucjan, whose personal experiences of loss come from the destruction of Warsaw in 1945. Certainly, this extra layer of images deepens the book, but it also makes one realize that the author feels free bring in anything even tangentially relevant with barely a pretext. Her avoidance of quotation marks makes it hard to know who is speaking, but most of the characters are too poorly fleshed out for that to matter. Instead, you sense that everyone is merely a mouthpiece for Michaels' own voice, filling the book with pithy, elegant, but barely meaningful remarks such as this stand-alone paragraph: "He thought that only love teaches a man his death, that it is in the solitude of love that we learn to drown."
Anne Michaels will be compared to other Canadian poets whose novels go beyond normal prose. Her Egyptian setting calls to mind Michael Ondaatje's THE ENGLISH PATIENT. Some of her scenes on the St. Lawrence and many of her images remind me strongly of Jane Urquhart's A MAP OF GLASS. Michaels certainly belongs in their company, but until she finds a way to reconcile the narrative thrust of a novel with her own instincts as a poet, she will not be their equal.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
She has a wonderful way with words and images stay indelibly in my mind.Read more