The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels


the-winter-vault-amazon1Those 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.

the-winter-vault-2There 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.


34 Responses to “The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels”

  1. Rob Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    What was your take on Fugitive Pieces? I must admit, I never got around to reading it.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I quite liked it. I did find the language to be a challenge but the storyline and characterization overcame that. I can’t say that happened with this book but also acknowledge people often like “writerly” books that I don’t. The only other review I have seen of The Winter Vault (in
    Quill and Quire) had the same problems I did and he was quite a bit grouchier with his opinion.


  3. Isabel Says:

    I give you an A+ for finishing this novel.

    I like the settings of The Winter Vault. I might try to read it.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Given some of your reviews and posts, Isabel, I think you might find this novel more appealing that I did. I am conscious that sometimes I am guilty of letting “language” that I don’t appreciate get in the way of my enjoyment of a book.


  5. Demob Happy Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I’ve not read this but I’m not embarassed to say I hated Fugitive Pieces.

    All the characters are a little too witty and charming, always armed with improbably off-the-cuff historical anecdotes and insightful aesthetic observations. Michaels has a habit of ending a chapter immediately after a particularly precocious comment by the main character (as a boy early in the novel) presumably to give the reader time to wallow in its brilliance. I found it smug and pretentious to say the least.

    Enjoying your blog though, by the way !



  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that Michaels has a tendency to be too “cute” in her writing (strange comment for such a dense writer) and sometimes her characters seem to be mouthpieces instead of characters. I did like Fugitive Pieces and thought it overcame that weakness — for me, this book does not. I’d be willing to be you would hate this one even more, which in no way is meant to discourage you from trying it.


  7. Demob Happy Says:

    Thanks Kevin, though I’d say at this point I’m pretty discouraged !


  8. Eva Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I found the language in Winter Vault too abstract, poetic, yes, but also abstract. When reading a novel, you want to be drawn into the world of the characters and care about them. I found I couldn’t get past the ‘large’ statements about loss, etc. to become engrossed with the characters.
    I enjoyed your comments on the book, your frankness.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree with you completely, Eva — most of the reviews I have read have come to the same conclusion. I didn’t realize until I read a recent interview with Michaels that the first reader of all her manuscripts is John
    Berger (author of From A to Z and other somewhat off-the-wall work). That did explain to me a lot about where her language comes from — and in this book I do think it got in the way of a very interesting story.


  10. Tom C Says:

    Thanks for this interesting take on Michaels’ book. I loved Fugitive Pieces but found Winter Vault incredibly annoying. I’ve reviewed it on my book blog.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Read your review — it did remind me that I was so annoyed with the book after 125 pages that I did put it aside (didn’t go so far as to take it to a used book store). Good Canadian that I am, I screwed up my courage to give it another go — as my review indicates, that prep did make part one not bad for me, but I was back in the mire in part two. I think we probably agree that there is too much poet, not enough novelist, in this work.


  12. Leopoldina Says:

    Kevin: well, i was feeling inadequate until i read your review as all the other reviews i have read of this book have been truly rapturous. thank god! someone else has problems with this novel’s overwritten, ponderous language. the highly literary, poetic style of fiction so stymies the narrative that i was left feeling completely disengaged. the novel seethes with ideas and emotions yet i felt i couldn’t access them through the stylised, tightly controlled verbiage which succeeds in rendering the novel lifeless. i enjoyed Fugitive Pieces but it was published in 1996 and the literary zeitgeist of that time was completely different to today’s. beautiful, well crafted language still has its place in contemporary fiction but not at the expense of political and cultural engagement. because in today’s climate, it simply seems indulgent and irrelevant.


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Leopoldina: Thanks for the comment — this review continues to get a lot of hits, but doesn’t attract very many comments (I can’t help but wonder if people are disappointed in the book when they look at it). I have to say that some months after reading it, the memory does not make it any better. I remember the “overwritten, ponderous language” more than I do the parts of the book I liked.


  14. S. Forrest Says:

    I once taught Fugitive Pieces in a poetry class. Michaels is a writer who is not a quick read, nor is her work accessible to each person who reads her, however, the charge of “pretentiousness” is, I believe, the reader’s failure…not the writer’s. She may not be for everyone, and that is her grace and her genius.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for bringing this review back up (since it has been a while since there has been a comment) and for your thoughts. I am quite likely to give this another read, now that it has been six months since my first one. I admit that for me the problem with Michaels is that her language and style is used as a barrier, not a path. I’m interested in seeing if that perception continues on a second read.


  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I rather liked that quote, which is promising in a way, perhaps my tolerance for poetic language is higher (I loved Milcé’s Alphabet of the Night, written up over at mine but reading this I suspect you might not take to it).

    The cuteness of the characters would annoy me though. May I ask, how long is it? Poetic language is concentrated stuff, too much of it would get wearing even if like me you have a taste for it.

    If you don’t have a taste for it, well, it would be positively painful.

    The subject matter sounds fascinating, the two part nature sounds interesting too. It sounds like the intent is a continuity of theme, but not subject, but that it didn’t work for you. I wonder if it would for me.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: The North American hardcover is 352 pages, so I’d characterize it as on the long side of normal. Given your interests, I think the subject matter is a positive — as I indicated in my previous comment, I’ll give this book another go in the next few weeks to see if some of my previous concerns were perhaps misplaced.


  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That’s a lot for a poetically written novel, it could get wearying.

    The subject matter certainly interests me, I’ll wait for your reread and see how it strikes you then, at the moment it’s sitting on the fence for me slightly. I may need to pop into a shop and browse it, see how it feels.


  19. sally wetherby Says:

    I have been reading the WV on Kindle. On my first attempt, I was really loving it till they went on a trip across Canada, and each was LECTURING the other about their interests—This is NOT dialogue, I thought; people do not TALK this way! I stopped dead in my tracks and did not read more. Lately, I picked it up again –I really loved some of the language, and the histories of the dams, the description of the abandoned huts intrigued me–some really evocative writing! But at times, I wanted to throw it across the room (since it was a Kindle, that would not have been wise!).I wondered what is wrong with me—my friend ADORED it!
    So I feel so gratified to read this blog, and the NYT review–it’s not just me. I have “Fugitive Pieces” downloaded, and I wonder if I will attempt that!
    BTW, I really loved Ontdaaje’s “In the Skin of the Lion”, but have
    not been able to read the last two at all, after looking forward to them.

    thanks all


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sally: Thanks for your comments. I liked Fugitive Pieces better than The Winter Vault, but it too is a challenging read — I think some readers are much more comfortable with Michaels’ writing than I am. And I would find the prospect of reading it on Kindle even more challenging, since I often found I needed to retreat for some re-reading.

    I too like Ondaatje’s earlier novels more than the recent ones — In the Skin of the Lion would be my favorite.


  21. shaun Says:

    You may be interested in a comparative essay of Michaels’ first novel (Fugitive Pieces) and The Winter Vault, just published on The Mantle.



  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the link — it is a very thorough essay.


  23. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve just read Fugitive Pieces and really enjoyed it. Admittedly I found the prose style a little woolly to begin with but once I got my head around and just let it wash over me I came to appreciate the beauty of it. I’m hesistant to read the Winter Vault though, as I’ve not really seen any truly positive reviews. Perhaps I’ll just wait for the paperback version to come out.


  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mark me down as another reader who liked Fugitive Pieces but could not connect with The Winter Vault. I did find that the prose became a barrier and in the final analysis it just wore me down.


  25. mg Says:

    I concur with S Forrest, and am dismayed to hear so many critiques along the lines of “pretentiousness” or the book becoming “wearying”.

    Suck it up all you Princesses: this book makes you work for its countless rewards. It’s like the difference between dense, textured German bread and easily digested [sic] white bread in North America.

    Work a bit harder and you’ll discover whole worlds to this novel, and Anne Michaels is kind enough to give us clues:

    “He thought that only love teaches a man his death, that it is in the solitude of love that we learn to drown.”

    Given this quote, the respective floodings are metaphors for Jean (St Lawrence) and Avery’s (Nile) ‘drownings’.

    Sadly, we live in a time of instant gratification and convenience, where nobody wants to work and the general population soon becomes oblivious to the rich rewards available to us all. Perhaps that’s one of many offhand comments Anne Michaels *effortlessly* makes:

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


  26. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I don’t think anyone who reads this blog is into instant gratification and convenience. I’m typing up today my summary of my thoughts on Anthony Powell’s twelve volume epic A Dance to the Music of Time for example. On poetic language, I loved Jean-Euphèle Milcé’s Alphabet of the Night.

    That’s not to blow my own trumpet, Tom C for example I know is extremely well read and not at all afraid of literary challenge. I imagine most readers of this blog are likewise.

    It’s always tempting when one loves an author to leap to their defence when one sees them criticised. One can do that effectively by pointing out considerations which may have been missed, or simply by stating one’s own countervailing view so signalling that opinion is not uniformly hostile to the author. Alternatively, and less effectively, one can insult those who didn’t like the author one loves.

    Put another way, seriously dude, princesses?


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Well, I think we can agree that Michaels does inspire passionate opinions at both ends of the spectrum. I did have to start this book twice and, speaking strictly personally, did not find the reward of struggling through her language to be worth the effort. But I would be the first to admit that readers who are more attuned to poetic language would — and do — have a totally different response. And I should also say that a number of images from the book do keep coming back, which is an indication that reading it was time well invested.


  28. Shastri Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I loved this novel (I haven’t read, Fugitive Pieces), and I loved some of John Banville’s writing as well. I love fiction that’s a fusion between prose, poetry and philosophy, which “Winter Vault” certainly is.

    I had a question for you. I’m based out of India, and would like to, for the academic year of 2011, apply to some Canadian schools for an MFA in Fiction (esp. British Columbia). Parts of my writing do tend to be poetic-style descriptions of settings, though there is a reasonable amount of scene/dialog. Would you say that such a style of writing might work against my chances to get admitted?

    Of course, I don’t intend changing my style only to get an admission; only, I’d know whether or not I should apply!


  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Shastri, thanks for commenting. It doesn’t surprise me that someone who likes Banville would like Michaels. What do you think of John Berger’s work — apparently he is Michaels’ “first reader” and the two seem to have complimentary styles.

    On the academic front, I graduated from university more than four decades ago so my first hand information is quite out of date. From my understanding as a reader, however, I would say that the creative writing programs at both the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria are quite consistent with aspects of your style. From published work, it seems to me that “poetic-style descriptions of settings” that I remember tend to come from UVic graduates. Check out the review on this blog of Deloume Road, by Matthew Hooton — he is a UVic grad. Those are only impressions, however.


    • Shastri Says:

      Thank you so much for the information, Kevin. I’ve looked at both universities and both have fabulous programs.
      I’m afraid I haven’t read John Berger, but I do intend to read some of his essays on art. I have just picked up his work “Here Is Where We Meet” and I hope to get to it after I finish reading the Annie Proulx novel I’m currently on (“Accordion Crimes” which is my favorite work by this author).
      I will let you know if I make it the next Fall to either of these universities. I’m taking a break for a year to work on my manuscript that I will submit as part of my application. And of course, I intend using all the extra time on reading a lot more!


  30. Christine Henderson Says:

    I agree entirely with Kevin from Canada’s remarks on this novel. I too am reading it for the second time – the first was about 18 months ago. I also feel the second part of the novel where Jean and Avery separate and she takes up with Lucjan is entirely misplaced writing. There seems to be no cohesion between the first and second part. The novel could quite easily have been ended at Jean and Avery’s separation. Lucjan enters the novel with a great force but by this time, I am over the repetitive story-telling/memories/this is why I am what I am scenario. To me the second part of the novel spoils the whole. The language in the first half of the novel is lyrical, thoughtful eg the widow, Georgina Foyle, and Avery’s description of how he approaches architecture:
    …Sometimes … when I’m looking at a building, I feel I know the architect’s mind. Not only his technical choices, but more … as if I knew his soul (P83-85). Brilliant writing. Perhaps the difference between the two halves of the novel could be explained by Avery prepares everything to be relocated/dislocated – the cutting of the Egyptian statues, etc. but does not help with the rebuilding/rehousing of the people the Aswan Dam are forced to face. That is left to government officials. While Lucjan returns to a city that has already undergone its destruction (Warsaw) and is involved in the rebuilding to its former glory because relics, etc. were hidden away before the German occupation.
    The final pages of the book when Avery and Jean meet at their daughter’s grave leave an optimistic note with the reader that their separation was a “dislocation” and their meeting might lead to the re-building of their relationship but it will be different just like the villages the dislocated people had to move to were different from their original homes.
    But I still feel Lucjan’s story is irrelevant to the plot as a whole. It is introducing a new character into the novel when the story line is nearly finished – this used to be a “no-no” when I was writing university assignments. Ah, well, poetic licence!


  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Christine: Wow — you have brought one of earliest posts of this blog (and the one from my first blogging year that got the most hits as well, I must say) back into the daylight. Many thanks.

    I have read a lot of books since reading this one but your excellent comment is very consistent with my memory of the book. I remember a number of parts from the first half (both in Egypt and the St. Lawrence side story) very well, even if I also remember that I found Michaels’ prose more heavy-sledding than lyrical (that’s just my taste). Both her images and stories remain strong in my memory.

    Like you I found the second half very disappointing and that is the way it lives in memory. I remember a little bit about Lucjan and the general story, but nothing more specific.

    Again, thanks for contributing your thoughts and bringing this book back to attention.


  32. Lisa Hill Says:

    This book is going to niggle at me. I thought Fugitive Pieces was brilliant, and I want this one to be brilliant too. But Kevin, one of my favourite litbloggers, has doubts, and the conversation in comments shows the divergence of opinion. That comment about Banville is the most disconcerting, I love some of his stuff but some of it is indigestible for me.
    I know I’m going to have to read it for myself to make up my own mind even though I’ve been forewarned!


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Well, you can see it inspires a range of opinion — not just in terms of good/bad but over the years as well.

      For what it is worth, more than four years after reading it, the Egyptian section remains fresh and interesting in memory (I recall my problems with the language but they have faded). As does the initial connection with the Canadian aspect of the story, specifically some of the similarities with the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Toronto section inspires no memory at all, beyond the fact that a good part of it is set only a few blocks from where our house was when we lived there.

      Being forewarned may well be a very good thing — there is nothing like restrained expectations to help concentrate the mind on what is really there. 🙂

      A final note re Fugitive Pieces. You might recall in the Toronto section of that one, the disaster that was Hurricane Hazel which featured in that section of the novel. I was six years old when Hurricane Hazel blew through (although living 60 miles down the road but we still experienced a major storm) and remember it well. Michaels came to mind just last week when Toronto had its biggest rainfall since Hurricane Hazel 60 years ago — they learned something, because this time there was not a single fatality.


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