THE WINTER VAULT by Anne Michaels [Bloomsbury]
This is the review I wrote for Your Weekend magazine's Anzac Day 2009 edition. I found it in the letterbox and took it with me rolled up in my bag to read while I waited for the ceremony at the local Anzac memorial to begin. An apposite book for that particular day and for me, still fresh from a winter in Canada.
Anne Michaels’ writing finds the epic in the intimate and the intimate in the epic in a way that is both astonishing and demanding. At the start of The Winter Vault, Avery is an engineer in 1960s Egypt involved with moving the temples of Abu Simbel so they aren’t drowned by the new Aswan Dam. While local Nubians are forced to leave their dead to drown in ancient graveyards and move to mock villages where they have no history, the temples are moved stone by stone to a place without meaning.
Avery and his new wife, Jean, watch this exodus from their houseboat, exploring each other’s bodies and trading family histories. Among other things they talk about the work Avery did back in Canada when he presided over villages being shifted and drowned to make way for the St Lawrence Seaway. This is a world where people and history are dispossessed by cataclysmic man-made events, and Avery and Jean move inside it unsure what it is they possess, especially when faced with a tragedy of their own.
The neutral authorial voice that characterises this novel shifts back and forwards from factual descriptions of the two river projects to intimate moments more akin to prose poems. These two elements lap at each other to the point that when the statue of Ramses is sawed through in preparation for moving, Jean expects to see blood.
Back in Toronto separated from Avery now, Jean meets a man who helped rebuild Warsaw following the devastation of World War II. The novel focuses then on the stories Lucjan has to tell about his own experience of dislocation and the agony of building a replica city on the bones of the dead. The ‘pact of words’ begun in the desert continues with Jean and Lucjan’s encounters in bed.
Meanwhile, Jean plunges her hands into the frozen Canadian soil and tries to create a garden from her late Mother’s cuttings: transplants too. This is where we hear about the winter vault which provides storage for bodies through the Canadian winter until the earth defrosts enough to allow them to be buried. It is a place of silent ceremony, where death itself is delayed, and somehow made manageable.
Michaels knows about the importance of taking time. At 50, she’s produced three poetry collections and two novels: the Orange award-winning Fugitive Pieces was published twelve years ago. In many ways, Michaels writes fiction like her compatriot Michael Ondaatje – also a poet. There’s the same disjointedness in the narrative, and the concise, freighted language which gives remarkable insights into the human condition. Winter Vault is not always an easy book to engage with, but patience renders up something utterly transcendent.