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The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels


The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels 

Anne Michaels impressed us all thirteen years ago when her first novel Fugitive Pieces was published to great literary acclaim. When the novel was adapted to film a few years ago it was discovered by a new generation of readers – just in time to welcome a new novel from this reclusive writer. Anne Michaels is the most private of people – refreshingly so in this celebrity-crazed world. She is a high profile author known for her work – not her private life or personality.

The Winter Vault is the story of Avery Escher, an engineer and his wife, Jean Shaw, a botanist. They meet when they are young, Avery just beginning his career as an engineer in Egypt. The high dam at Aswan is being constructed and the ancient ruins of Abu Simbel are being painstakingly taken apart and moved. Avery is distressed to be part of this – “that somehow holiness was escaping under their drills …that by the time Abu Simbel was finally re-erected, it would no longer be a temple.” It is not only the temple that is being re-located – it is a community – the people who for generations had lived in this place. The effect is devastating. Forever lost is the beauty of the old houses, and the “children who had been born in the village and who would never be able to return.”

Avery has a connection with another dam construction project and the re-location of people closer to home – the Saint Lawrence Seaway. In 1958 his father, also an engineer, worked on that project. Houses were removed – a population dislocated, before the flooding commenced on Canada Day 1958.

Anne Michaels descriptions of both dam projects and the events surrounding them are wonderful – vivid and visual – the best parts of the novel. Both the architectural information and her writing, about the lives of the people affected by the dams, is riveting.

It is after Avery and Jean return to Canada that I found some of this novel a bit of a struggle. Their marriage has been damaged by their experience in Egypt and we find Jean living alone in the apartment she has inherited in Toronto. I found this rift in their relationship very sad – they seemed to be everything to each other. Both had lost so much when they were young and their marriage appeared to satisfy, for each of them, the need to have someone to love – and to be loved in return. They talked to each other incessantly during their marriage, and continue to talk on the phone during their separation. They are also joined together by their relationship with Avery’s mother, who lives in a fertile garden on the Holland Marsh. Avery is depressed by the part he has played in the flooding for the dam. Jean, when questioned about the dam, says, “What was lost is more than what was gained.” She could be talking about herself. Jean is grieving as she grieved as a child. She sees the years since her mother’s death, during her marriage to Avery “as if all the years of happiness with him had been only a reprieve, not meant to be hers.”  

Jean has become involved with a Polish immigrant, Lucjan, an “artist” who paints graffiti at night in the city of Toronto. Lucjan’s mother was a holocaust survivor and Anne Michaels writes about another sort of removal - the destruction of cities by war, the people displaced by war – never quite comfortable in their re-located lives. Her relationship with Lucjan provides Jean with the space she needs to heal, to begin to come to terms with her experience in Egypt and her mother’s death many years earlier. She finally brings herself to visit the cemetery where her mother’s body was kept in the winter vault, where she is now buried. Where Jean sat, as a child, with her father while he read out loud to her mother, in death as he had in life.

Ironically it is Lucjan who, unintentionally, brings Jean to the realization that it is Avery who she is meant to spend her life with. Lucjan says “There is only one real chance in a life, and if you fail at that moment, or if someone fails you, the life that was meant to be yours is gone. Every day for the rest of your life you will be eviscerated by that memory.”

It is writing such as this that makes this novel one to read.


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