Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Review - The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

I wanted to read a book set in Egypt, preferably some place in or around Cairo, so I turned to Anne Michaels’ second book, The Winter Vault. I was pulled in by the cover art alone: the Nile, the people on camels, the date palms, the beautiful orange and yellow, so reflective of the desert heat.

Canadian writer Michaels is, of course, an award-winning poet. So, it came as no surprise to me that her second novel was written in highly lyrical, poetic prose. Michaels is also known to explore the great themes of grief, displacement, and loss, and The Winter Vault, like her poetry and like her previous novel, explores those themes on a rather grand and very melancholy scale. However, the very things that cause Michaels’ poetry to soar are also the very things that cause her prose to keep the reader at arm’s length.

The Winter Vault, which is told in two parts, is set in 1964 and opens in Egypt where Avery Escher, a young British engineer, accompanied by his Canadian botanist wife, Jean, is working to dismantle, block-by-block, the one thousand-year-old temple at Abu Simbel and rebuild it on higher ground before the Aswan dam project and Lake Nasser flood the ancient site.

Michaels carries her theme of displacement even further when she tells us how Avery and Jean met when Avery was working on the St. Lawrence Seaway project, which connected Montreal with Lake Ontario, and she draws many parallels between the displaced Canadians and the displaced Nubians. One of the novel’s most powerful set pieces revolves around the heartbreak of a community being separated from the graves of its cherished dead, no matter where in the world they may be. In fact, the “winter vault” of the novel’s title refers to places built in cold climates to house corpses when the ground is far too hard and frozen for digging graves. The following passage is an example of what I mean by the "power" of this set piece. Avery is talking to a widow whose husband’s grave is going to be moved:

- But they can move your husband’s body, said Avery. The company will pay the expenses.

She looked at him with astonishment. The thought seemed to silence her. Then she said,

- If you move his body then you’ll have to move the hill. You’ll have to move the fields around him. You’ll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children. You’ll have to move the sun because it sets among these trees. And move his mother and his father and his younger sister — she was the most admired girl in the county, but all the men died in the first war, so she never married and was laid to rest next to her mother. They’re all company for one another and those graves are old, so you’ll have to move the earth with them to make sure nothing of anyone is left behind. Can you promise me that? Do you know what it means to miss a man for twenty years?

And yes, Michaels does omit quotation marks, thus calling even more attention to her use of language.

As day-by-day, work continues on the Abu Simbel project, both Avery and Jean wonder if rebuilding can ever replicate the original and how best to honor the dead. At one point in the book, Jean comes to the conclusion that:

Unprecedented in history, masses of humanity do not live, nor will they be buried, in the land where they were born. War did this first...and then water.

A tragic event in the lives and marriage of Avery and Jean sends them away from Egypt, however and back to Toronto. There, not really knowing if they are still in love or if it’s simply that each must work through his or her grief alone, they decide to separate. Avery makes the decision to study architecture, and he pretty much disappears from the narrative, which, for the balance of the book, concentrates on Jean and her relationship with “the Caveman,” a renegade graffiti artist named Lucjan. As Jean is planting herbal plants in the public gardens of Toronto each night in order to remind immigrants of their homeland, Lucjan, a Jewish-Polish refugee, is replicating the animals of Lascaux on various available sites.

I found Avery and Jean’s separation entirely believable, and to Michaels’ credit, the second half of the book ties in beautifully with the first thematically in that Lucjan was involved in the rebuilding of Warsaw’s Old Town after WWII. Michaels is, of course, still exploring the same themes, and Avery and Lucjan are connected through Jean. However, I really did not like the fact that Michaels was so willing to abandon Avery and cheat her readers out of experiencing the grieving process he had to go through. This turn of events also made me very unsympathetic to Jean, who seemed so concerned with “betrayal” up until the time she separated from Avery and met Lucjan. Wasn’t Jean’s affair with Lucjan also a betrayal? And wasn’t it a betrayal of the worst kind? Neither Jean nor Michaels seems to care, and for me, this flied in the face of what this book is all about. And, while I was interested in the stories of Lucjan and interested in Warsaw, for me the emotional heft of the book was lost in Part Two. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; I care deeply about the Holocaust and its victims and I'm very interested in Warsaw and all of Eastern Europe; I simply felt like I was reading a different book altogether, and one I hadn’t signed on to read at that point.

Michaels’ characters establish themselves through long passages of uninterrupted narration. So it is with Lucjan as he details his childhood as an orphan in Warsaw after the war, as he makes clear that he, too, knows what it’s like to suffer. In this, the second part of The Winter Vault is very much like Michaels’ Orange Prize winning debut novel, Fugitive Pieces, published in 1997. As I said, my dissatisfaction with The Winter Vault’s second half, came, not through lack of sympathy for Lucjan or any disinterest in Warsaw or the Holocaust, but simply because I felt there had been a very distinct disconnect in the book, despite the echoes Michaels builds in.

The problem for many readers will lie in the fact that Michaels doesn’t approach the novel in traditional novelistic fashion. Instead, she writes very much like her fellow Canadian, Michael Ondaatje, who also began his career as a poet. Both Ondaatje and Michaels had debut novels that entranced millions (The English Patient and Fugitive Pieces) and both approached these novels in an impressionistic, poetic manner. Both make use of dense language and intense sensory observations – prerequisites for any good poet. Their novels are more like snapshots frozen in time than stories that progress from one point to the logical next point. Sometimes this works, but more often than not, it freezes a book’s narrative; it distances the reader from the characters and the story, and it can begin to sound far too didactic and flat. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I experienced when reading The Winter Vault. Although one character says, “No two facts are too far apart to be put together,” I found that in The Winter Vault, they can be, and even though the book is beautifully written, Michaels tries her reader’s patience. There were times when I just wanted to sigh and say, “Please, get on with it.”

Generally, I love lyrically written, poetic books. I love poetry. But I do require something of plot in a novel, even in a character driven novel, and the dialogue and the characters have to come alive for me; they have to pull me in. I’m sorry to say that in The Winter Vault, they definitely did not.

Avery and Jean talk to each other in a lofty way no married couple would ever talk to each other. Ever. At one point, Jean says to Avery:

- You’re like a man seen from a distance, a man who we think has stopped to tie his shoelaces but who is really kneeling in prayer.

To which Avery replies:

- Our shoelaces have to come undone, said Avery, before we ever think to kneel....

It’s a lovely, poetic image, and a lofty thought, and a writer might get away with that in one or two places in a novel, but Avery and Jean speak to each other like that all the time. All the time. It doesn’t take many pages until the whole effect becomes cloying. Eventually, it renders Avery and Jean no more than props or conveyances of the theme and the prose. Michaels never seem reconciled to the fact that readers want to read about people they can identify with, people who, while they may have never lived except within the pages of a book, seem real to the reader. Even the simplest things in this book have to be explored for their deeper, hidden meaning:

Lucjan made a late supper. He threw all the ingredients into one pan, the vegetables, the meat, the eggs; he crushed and rubbed the dust of herbs over the puckering oil...Jean watched him. No one had ever cooked for her in all the years since her mother died. She had not known that this had hurt her…she wept as she ate...and he let her cry, only taking her hand across the table, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, this gratitude. To eat and weep.

No wonder the people in this book are so profoundly unhappy. Sometimes, things don’t need to be analyzed. Sometimes they just exist to be enjoyed. The poetic intensity that some people, like me, love in books, has to be doled out in small doses. Michaels simply overwhelms us with it. A good thing can be taken too far. I like chocolate cake; I would never want an entire meal consisting of it. In the end, I think Michaels has given us “too much of a good thing” with her rhapsodic prose. After all, what works, and works well in poetry, isn’t going to work at all in prose, especially long fiction. And the book reads like Michaels is sometimes fighting against the form of the novel. Michaels seems so intent on packing The Winter Vault full of poetic images and turns of phrase that there is no rhythm to her writing; there’s no room for the book to breathe. Nothing is allowed to exist without being given poetic flight. Because of this – and because of that very abrupt narrative shift about halfway through – beautiful as the book is, its emotional impact is greatly lessened; its discourses on architecture, history, botany, etc. overwhelm the story.

People who love pulling a random volume of poetry off their shelves and spending a sunny afternoon reading in the garden under the pear tree might like this kind of rapt prose. Others are going to find it terribly overwritten and cloying. Yes, the themes are lofty, but the characters are ordinary people struggling with ordinary problems, as, I presume, most of Michaels’ readers to be. Even those readers like me who love poetry and love lyrical writing and loved Fugitive Pieces are going to find that the prose in The Winter Vault, and thus the entire book, itself, eventually sinks into nothing more than a sugary confection with no substance.

The ending of The Winter Vault could go either way – happy or not. I’m not going to spoil the surprise and tell you here which it is, but I will say that it fit with the rest of the book. Sadly, even the ending seemed to have been written, not to explore the “humanness” in us all and our responses to loss and tragedy, but rather to place characters in a beautiful image, a poetic turn of phrase.

Anne Michaels is already a first rate poet. I think she could be a first rate novelist, too, if only she’d remember that readers of novels aren’t looking for a volume of poetry. Even those of us who love highly literary, character driven fiction are looking for a story about people. It’s people – not language – that in the end makes or breaks a book.


Recommended: No, not even if you like poetry. If you like poetry, read a volume of poetry, instead. Read Anne Michaels' poetry, or if you must have poetic prose, read Fugitive Pieces, Michaels' debut novel. If, like me, you want to read a book set in Egypt, try Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. And if you’re looking for true insight into “what it means to be human” turn to William Trevor.

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