Anne Michaels’s 1997 debut novel Fugitive Pieces was undoubtedly a hard act to follow. Described by the Guardian as “a bona fide phenomenon” and by John Berger as “the most important book I have read for forty years,” it was a critically-acclaimed, award-winning international bestseller, translated into more than 20 languages. Now, some 12 years on, Michaels has published a second novel, The Winter Vault, which revisits some of the same themes — memory, love, history and loss — but can it live up to the standard set by her immensely powerful debut?
The Winter Vault is certainly an ambitious novel, exploring the intricate detail of personal lives and intimate relationships against a sweeping, large-scale canvas of mid-twentieth century disruption and displacement. Opening in 1964 on the construction of the Aswan dam in Egypt, it introduces us to the young English engineer Avery, who is responsible for the reconstruction of the ancient temple at Abu Simnel, now under threat from the Nile’s rapidly rising waters. Against this background of an irrevocably changing landscape, where thousands will be exiled, their homes and communities destroyed, Avery and his new wife Jean are tentatively constructing a life together. By night, they quietly unravel the stories of their lives, and the history of Abu Simnel becomes intertwined with their own, highly personal memories. Yet their tenderness is first disturbed by their awareness of their complicity in the destruction of the landscape around them, and then suddenly shattered by a powerful loss of their own.
Reading The Winter Vault is a peculiarly intense experience: Michael’s language is acutely precise, richly textured and lyrically beautiful, whether she is describing the immensity of the Egyptian desert or focusing in scrupulous detail upon a flower in Jean’s garden. The most ordinary objects become charged with layers of meaning, articles in Michael’s “catalogue of desires… market of the broken and lost” each evoking a highly resonant series of significations. Yet frequently Michaels’s sentences are almost too beautiful, too intensely suffused with portent: Jean and Avery converse in a series of cryptic, gnomic utterances which are too mannered to be convincing:
“ – You’re like a man seen from a distance, a man who we think has stopped to tie his shoelaces but who is really kneeling in prayer.
– Our shoelaces have to come undone, said Avery, before we ever think to kneel . . .”
Expressing themselves through such artfully profound psuedo-philosophical interchanges, Avery and Jean remain remote and distant; and thus, whilst Michaels is enormously eloquent about the horrors of violence, loss and disenfranchisement, whether it is inflicted on landscapes, communities or individuals, the emotional impact of the novel is always limited. Interestingly, early in the novel, Jean herself remarks on the potency of simple language, stating “the words were so ordinary… it was the ordinariness of the words that was so moving.” More often than not, Michaels’s words are simply too extraordinary: their self-conscious lyricism, and crafted intensity only serve to distance us emotionally, and ultimately prevent us from being moved.
Yet though the language may be precious and portentous, there is no doubt that The Winter Vault is nevertheless an unusually powerful novel. Michaels has a particular gift for drawing together the immensity of historical moments with the intimacy of individual stories, and shaping them into one coherent whole. Thus, Jean and Avery’s relationship is linked not only with the dismantling and reconstructing of the Abu Simnel temple, but also with the building of Canada’s St Lawrence Seaway, and the destruction and reconstruction of occupied Warsaw, creating an intelligent meditation on loss, memory, displacement and recovery which transcends conventions of time and place. As the characters patiently listen to one another’s personal stories, these diverse strands are drawn together, forming the grounds for Michaels to explore some far-reaching questions about the meaning of history, man’s relationship to nature, and how we commemorate loss. The result is a vast, rich and deeply melancholy novel: its panoramic reach is perhaps, in the end, Michaels’s downfall, for as stated in the novel “we have so long forgotten how to be intimate with immensity.”
Any Cop?: Whether or not The Winter Vault can stand up to Fugitive Pieces is questionable – yet there is no doubt that this wistful elegy for what has already been lost is a magnificent, though flawed, achievement.