The Winter Vault: Beautiful but Hurtful

This is Anne Michaels' signature look - haunted yet indifferent eyes set in a striking face surrounded by a mane of hair. In each of her official photos it's the same look and when you read her novels you can't help but wonder what needles her day in and day out. Just as in Fugitive Pieces, Michaels' newest, The Winter Vault, is fraught with longing and loss, so much so that whatever hurts in your own heart might sting after reading it.

For those of you not familiar with one of Canada's greatest literary luminaries, Michaels' first novel, Fugitive Pieces, won the Orange Prize and went on to be adapted into a feature film. She's also the author of three collections of poetry.

Thirteen years has passed since Fugitive Pieces. I'm not sure time has favoured Michaels. While Fugitive Pieces blew me away with its technical brilliance and emotional power, The Winter Vault was a long, hard slog.

This is the premise: Avery and Jean, newly married, have landed in Egypt where Avery is overseeing the taking apart and reconstruction of a temple to save it from the rising waters of the Nile, caused by a newly built dam.

This is juxtaposed with the place they first met - the St. Lawrence River when the seaway was first constructed, the seaway that similarly swallowed homes, towns, lives.

Alongside this larger violence is Jean and Avery's personal tragedies as well as the tale of Lucjan, Jean's lover's, life in post-war Warsaw.

The theme is clearly loss but to what end? Michaels has assembled a convincing roll-call of tragedy, both of large and small scale, but there is no result to it. Her portrayal is beautiful but beautiful words and exquisite moments do not a thing of beauty make.

Avery and Jean and the rest of characters are nothing more than props, bubbling over with delicious sentiment. What little plot there is is merely a netting to hold up precious baubles of words and turns of phrase.

What results is a meandering, heartless, beautiful nothing full of aching sadness. Michaels has taken too much to heart the perfection poetry can achieve when deeper meaning is crafted through form.

A novel needs more room to breathe, more room for effusion and blunder. The Winter Vault is as carefully built and as cold as the vault of which she speaks. And we are the poorer for it.

Other reviews of The Winter Vault:
The Keepin' It Real Book Club
(Have you reviewed The Winter Vault? Let me know!)


kirbc said...

I was also disappointed at how it doesn't hold together like Fugitive did. You're right on the characters as props...I think I wanted them to be more than they were, and was more forgiving out of loyalty to Michaels.

Scrat said...

I agree with you about this novel. I loved Fugitive Pieces but hated this one. I wish I had read your review before buying it and anticipating something great. Oh well.

BC in BC said...

My "pleasure reading" these days has been reduced to 2 or 3 pages per night - a challenge for writer and reader both - this book held together with a quiet craftsmanship - achingly beautiful observations that resonated so strongly I could taste them the next night. Unlike the previous posts, I found the characters to be well formed and fascinating. This is a story of loss, trust, respect and healing.


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