Those who loved Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces have now been waiting 12 years for a second novel — I am beating the release date by three weeks with this review, but that would seem to be a minor problem.
Like Fugitive Pieces, The Winter Vault comes in two parts. In part one, we are introduced in 1964 to Avery and Jean Escher on a houseboat on the Nile, just below the temple of Abu Simbel. Avery is an engineer, charged with developing the plans to move the temple as the Aswan Dam is completed — Jean is his Canadian wife, interested in flora, fauna and dislocation.
There is no doubt that the first part of this novel is based on that notion of “dislocation”. Avery and Jean met during the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway — their memories from that experience will influence everything that is to come. From the developers’ point of view, both the Aswan and St. Lawrence projects involve “relocation” — from Avery and Jean’s (and it must be said the author’s) it is “dislocation”. A passage that I skipped over on my first read involving the widow Georgiana Foyle captures the difference:
–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?
Good luck, Avery, on meeting that promise. And now he is moving the legendary tomb of an Egyptian ruler. Turns out that building the St. Lawrence Seaway was just a minor league experience.
Michaels is very strong in exploring — and indeed exploiting — the notion the people have a history, rooted in their ground, which can be exploded by dislocation. Her exploration and explanation of the Nubians being moved from the land that will become Lake Nasser is deeply felt and exceptionally well done.
And then, we move to Toronto. A tragic event in Avery and Jean’s life brings them home and they agree to separate. He heads off to architecture school (and pretty much disappears from the book) she continues her interest in botany and starts surreptitiously planting “public” gardens around Toronto. One night she meets “the Caveman”: just as she is planting gardens, he is a graffiti artist who is replicating the animals of Lascaux on various available sites around Toronto.
Jean and Lucjan take up with each other in what, for me, was an entirely dissatisfying development in the book. Lucjan is a refugee from Poland and the thread of Part Two of this book is the work that he was involved with in rebuilding Warsaw after the war. It does relate to Part One — the dead are in these buildings — and it does carry echoes from the first half. Perhaps it is my own lack of knowledge of Warsaw (and I would certainly appreciate thoughts from Polish visitors to this site if they read this book — I may be missing it entirely) but the whole story line falls flat. We move from a very big picture, well developed, to a very small one that doesn’t seem to have much point.
Fugitive Pieces was not without its critics. For every reader who loved the “poetic language”, there was another who found it grossly over-written. I’d say The Winter Vault is going to have a similar response. Michaels is a poet and cannot resist that language:
The air was charged and solid; it shuddered, as if walls were rising out of the ground at an accelerated pace. After a few minutes of terrified observation, Lucjan realized the sun was rising and the spectral walls were merely the effect of dawn making its progress up through the smoke. Sunlight passed through walls of dust where real walls had stood only a few hours before; the city, an afterimage. When the dust settled, this glowing flesh dissolved, leaving only the skeletons of the buildings, sharp piles of stone, ventilator shafts, mangled iron beams, shredded wooden beams, cobblestones, chimney pots, eaves, shingles, pantry cupboards with their round wooden knobs, glass and metal doorknobs, different kinds of twisted pipe, electrical wires, disintegrated plaster, cartilage, bone, brain matter. Floating fibres of upholstery and singed hair floated in the January wind; scraps of wool dresses, melted buttons, and the greasy smoke of still-burning, avalanched bodies. The air glinted with infinitesimally small particles of glass.
The dead were invisible and pervasive; in another dimension where they would never be found.
If you like that excerpt, you will love this book. I did not and I feel frustrated that I didn’t. Part One opens and develops important issues that, at least on my second read, had me intrigued. And then, just as Michael Ondaatje sent Divisadero off on a tangent, Michaels does the same thing with this book. I look forward to comments from those who can accommodate themselves to her language and will find this to be a better book than I did — I must say I regard it as a noble failure.