Scotiabank Giller Prize 2009, Book 4

November 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The Winter Vault. Anne Michaels; McClelland & Stewart, $32.99 cloth, 342 pp., 978-0-7710-5890-5.

michaels4Previous Giller wins/noms: Fugitive Pieces (nominee)

Other awards (selected): Orange Prize for fiction (Fugitive Pieces)

Trillium Book Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Guardian Fiction Award (Fugitive Pieces)

Commonwealth Prize for the Americas (The Weight of Oranges)

Canadian Authors Association Award (Miner’s Pond)

Governor General’s Award (Miner’s Pond, nominee)

From the publisher: “Weaving together historical moments and the quiet intimacy of human lives, The Winter Vault tells of the ways in which we salvage what we can from the violence of life. It is the story of a husband and wife trying to find their way back to each other, of people and nations displaced and uprooted, of the myriad means by which we all seek out a place we can call home. Vivid in its descriptions of both the physical and emotional worlds of its characters, this breathtaking, deeply moving novel reveals the inescapability of memories, the devastation of loss, and the restorative powers of love.”

From reviews: “The characters in The Winter Vault live in a world of intense emotion and ethical grappling, ‘an engagement of mind … almost shattering in its pleasure.’ Freed from the shackles of groceries and telephone bills, their essences appear distilled or concentrated on the page. Luckily this paring down, under Michaels’ sure hand, makes them not less human but more so.” – Alison Pick, The Walrus

“Michaels produces passages of lyrical beauty, and eloquently expresses her horror at human violence inflicted on the land and its inhabitants. Yet the novel’s emotional impact remains subdued, in part because Michaels at times allows her lessons – of botany, history, architecture – to overwhelm her story; and in part because of the abrupt narrative shift halfway through.” – Sylvia Brownrigg, the Guardian

“After that first meeting of our lovers, what ensues are a series of conversations between Jean and Avery in which they reveal their respective pasts to one another. It is these conversations – forming a series of highly plumed lyrical monologues – that make The Winter Vault work more like an epic poem than a novel. Think of the Arabian Nights, or the Odyssey, where characters incessantly tell stories about themselves and others; these are texts that carry whole cultures within themselves, and Michaels achieves something similar here.” – Steven Hayward, The Globe and Mail

“A friend of mine once described Don DeLillo’s Underworld as a book in which every sentence seems burdened by the weight of its own genius, and the same critique applies here: this novel is too systematic, too perfectly self-contained, too precious. Too often its characters sound like voices in a wispy philosophical dialogue, or a fragment of Kahlil Gibran … But beware: the reader who bites blissfully through these layers of frosting, expecting to find a soft, spongy filling, is going to wind up with a mouthful of shrapnel, sand and broken glass. By the end of The Winter Vault – hallelujah! – Anne Michaels has pulled off the ultimate trick of making us forget we’ve ever read a book like this before.” – Jess Row, The New York Times

My reaction: In 1964, husband and wife Avery and Jean Escher participate in the relocation of the sacred temple at Abu Simbel, which is being displaced by the building of the Aswan Dam. Jean gets pregnant, but her baby is stillborn. Returning to Toronto, the grief-stricken Jean (now separated from Avery) takes up with Lucjan, a Polish emigré artist scarred by the collective history of Warsaw’s experience during the war.

On one level, trying to describe the story in The Winter Vault is futile, because there really isn’t one. Instead of a traditionally novelistic narrative, Michaels has created a rumination, a meditation on violence and displacement, loss and memory, art and war. Whatever emotional weight accrues to the novel results not from a careful depiction of characters in action but from the way in which Michaels’ melancholic sensibility transforms the events of history into an extended metaphor for humanity’s connection to place and some abstract notion of home:

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 those trees. And move his mother and his father and his younger sister – she was the most admired girl in the country, 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?

It is to Michaels’ credit that much of this is done without recourse to the kind of baroque frippery that was so evident throughout Fugitive Pieces. True, Michaels can’t resist the occasional retreat into the self-consciously poetic (“He thought that only love teaches a man his death, that it is in the solitude of love that we learn to drown”), but for the most part, The Winter Vault is remarkably restrained.

There’s little point in complaining about the lack of an engaging story or conventionally defined characters. These things don’t interest Michaels. But even the most unsympathetic reader can’t help being impressed by the author’s deftness at handling the novel’s complicated chronology, nor can such a reader be blind to the chimes and resonances that play off one another in the narrative. Critics have argued with some validity that the second half of the novel does not possess the same force as the first; nevertheless, the contrast between the descriptions of the relocation of Abu Simbel and the reconstruction of Warsaw is illuminating, and carries with it an undeniable ironic power.

Heavily researched and lyrically rendered, The Winter Vault suffers from a surfeit of intellectualism at the expense of immediacy and vigour. The bone white and faded grey of the book’s carefully composed cover image are a perfect visual representation of its melancholic contents. “Some places are drenched in sorrow,” one of the characters says. Likewise, some novels.

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