Between the Covers

The Winter Vault

Ann Michaels

Michaels’ long awaited second novel comes 12 years after her Orange prize-winning Fugitive Pieces. In The Winter Vault Michaels explores dispossession, exile and forgiveness. Three historic events are remembered through the work and relationships of Jean, a botanist, and Avery, a structural engineer.

Eerie parallels pervade three continents as Michaels delves into the meaning of place in human experience. This is a thoroughly, at times too obviously, researched book. Whole pages are taken up with encyclopaedic lists. The disastrous ecological consequences of the Aswan Dam were exhaustive and shocking; the listing of things drowned and calculations of what could be saved, harrowing. But interestingly, because of these statistical recitals, this story stayed with me long after the last page. As our beautiful world disappears what could be colder than the truth?

The lack of characterisation and plot development will put The Winter Vault on shaky ground for some readers. When Avery experiences “a leaching of faith” it is Michaels’ voice I read, not his, questioning what happens to a person’s “flesh knowledge” of home when it disappears. The three massive building projects, like the characters, become almost incidental to Michaels’ exploration into this “wreckage of memory”. In an interview she summarises the book as “an argument against this loss”.

The Winter Vault lacked the intimacy of Fugitive Pieces but I was equally as moved by the story. The poetic prose, rich with metaphor, is as lyrical as it is dense. I took it in small doses. It’s a provoking tale, one that left me feeling vulnerable but also hopeful – a bit like the very first shop to open its doors in Warsaw’s ruins, “perched on top of the rubble, in the snow! – a florist’s shop”.

The book spans three decades beginning in 1964. Newlyweds Jean and Avery live on a houseboat while Avery oversees the dismantling and rebuilding of Egypt’s Abu Simbel temple to escape Aswan Dam. Its rebirth, 60 metres higher, becomes, for Avery, more desecration than salvage, “as false as redemption without repentance”. The story then switches to 1957 and Canada’s St Lawrence Seaway where they first met. Avery watches with “slow coagulating grief” the flooding of 14,000 hectares. In the book’s final third, Jean finds solace from the stillbirth of their child in an affair with Lucjan, a Polish guerrilla artist, as she listens to his anguished stories about Warsaw and its post-war reconstruction.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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