The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels. McClelland & Stewart, 2009.
The Winter Vault is Anne Michaels’ second novel. Her first, Fugitive Pieces, was very well received, and as I never got around to reading it, I made an effort not to let this second outing pass me by as well. Michaels is primarily known as a poet, and the language of The Winter Vault, beautiful and evocative, reveals the novel to be an extension, in some way, of her poetic works. The story is one of love, loss and longing.
The two lovers are Jean and Avery. From the very beginning, their relationship is tinged by the losses they have both experienced. Jean’s mother died when Jean was just 9 years old, and years later, Jean still feels her loss. Avery’s beloved father died recently, not long before he met Jean. The themes of loss and longing continue to be woven into their life together.
Jean and Avery meet when Avery is working on the St. Lawrence Seaway project and together they experience the empty river bed, the river held back by coffer dams as work progresses. They witness the sense of loss felt by the 6,000 villagers who must relocate to new towns to make way for the Seaway, leaving much of their former lives behind. After the Seaway project, Avery, an engineer, takes Jean to Egypt with him, where he works on another river project, the damming of the Nile and the relocation of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel. Again Jean and Avery witness the grief and loss of the people, this time numbering over 60,000, as they must relocate their lives. Their loss becomes personal and intimate when Jean’s pregnancy ends with the loss of their baby. The loss overwhelms her. She and Avery separate and back in Toronto, Jean meets Lucjan, a Polish artist who suffered great losses in wartorn Warsaw.
The sense of place that Michaels invokes is central to her story. I especially liked the interesting juxtaposition of the St. Lawrence Seaway Project and the construction of the Aswan Dam. The two events do have notable similarities. Michaels briefly addresses some of the consequences of the Aswan Dam: the huge loss of invaluable water through evaporation from the new lake, the loss of silt for fertilizing fields, the loss of fish populations. I was disappointed that she makes no mention of the considerable environmental costs of the Seaway. The fate of Warsaw under first the Nazis and then the Soviets was also interesting. I appreciated her brief introduction of poet Andrei Platonov.
Perhaps I’m unsympathetic, but Jean began to wear on me. She’s exhausting. Talk about the glass is half-empty! Her life isn’t too shabby and includes a good education, a loving husband, the adventure of travel. She doesn’t appear to have any particular interests outside a mild taste for gardening and only works when her husband’s step-mom finds her an office assistant job. Happily, things are beginning to look better by the end of the book.