The Winter Vault
April 30, 2010
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". . . well worth the effort . . . to be introduced to Michaels’ vision of the world."
Love and loss through the eyes of an engineer and a botanist told by a poet at the pinnacle of her power.
When the Egyptian government decided to build the Aswan dam, a decision had to be made about whether to flood the temple of Abu Simbel, move it or raise it sixty feet out of the path of the flood waters. Avery Escher, a Canadian engineer, is part of the team that will section, number and raise Ramses’ temple. With him, Avery brings his wife Jean to live on a houseboat on the Nile while the work is completed. He also brings his belief that home is a place you make and is malleable and movable in contrast to Jean’s belief that home is a fixed place where roots dig deep into the soil.
They approach the project from separate beliefs and come together in love and passion that brings with it a child, stillborn, who tears them apart, ending with their return to Canada to separate lives.
It is not often to find a poet like Anne Michaels who has such a strong grasp of how to craft a memorable and meaty novel such as The Winter Vault. Strong philosophical underpinnings and finely crafted themes told in lyrical prose are at the heart of this novel where two people from different backgrounds and disciplines come together in passion, love and loss. Whether or not they find redemption, their journey touches deeper chords and lingers long after the last page.
From the abandoned village and the exacting engineering that form the bedrock of The Winter Vault to the pain and horror of Eastern Europe during World War II, Michaels moved me as if in a dream. Immersed in the sadness and necessity of removing people from their ancient home, I was catapulted into the history of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the floods that covered Jean’s home. It was like waking in the midst of a dream unsure of whether I was awake or asleep. Although the transitions are sharp and often vertiginous, the spell Michaels cast and the poetry of the landscape of progress and the human heart kept me bound to the end.
The Winter Vault is well worth the effort and I was glad to be introduced to Michaels’ vision of the world. In Avery’s words, Michaels does “[n]ot give shape to space, but . . . give[s] shape to . . . emptiness,” with a depth and understanding of language and poetry that resonates in the deepest reaches of the soul.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell