Fiction: "The Winter Vault," by Anne Michaels.
Reading Anne Michaels' long-awaited second novel is like reading a dream. The hefty book is languid and spooky in its cadence -- a love story woven together with tales of loss.
It's a complicated book, a book I would classify as beach reading and the rest of the world would not. That is, beach reading under an umbrella with lots of sunscreen, a box of tissues and several days of thinking at hand.
As the plot examines place -- be it England, Poland, Egypt or Canada -- it explores what it means to have the place you come from erased. Whether it's by civic dam project, acts of war or a loved one's death, displacement leaves souls to wander the Earth in search of peace.
But this is also a love story. One of the sweetest and most profound relationships I've read in years. A love story between Avery Escher and Jean Shaw. Avery is an engineer and Jean a student botanist. They meet in a dry river bed, Avery looking out upon a space his father, also an engineer, created (or destroyed) by diverting a river; Jean, collecting native plant species along the banks in order to save them -- and the memory of her mother's garden.
And so engineering and science and botany and love and water and heat mix to make this relationship come together and then rip apart and cautiously come together again. As Jean notes at the beginning of their relationship:
"Even that night, the night he touched one inch of her in the dark, how simply Avery seemed to accept the facts -- that they were on the edge of lifelong happiness and, therefore, inescapable sorrow."
The structure of the book fascinates me as each story is told by a narrator right at a character's shoulder, no quotation marks to designate dialogue, so often stories and voices overlap.
This structure, its cadence and repetition, works against Michaels at times and certain chapters turn toward a heavy-handed melodrama, but at other times the fluidity of the plot mixed with well-researched history, engineering, botany and science creates a richness of time and space and emotion that I can't imagine creating otherwise. There seem to be, for instance, more descriptions of place than dialogue. In making this decision Michaels often uses geography in place of conversation:
"The air deepened. For a long moment this light was suspended, like the face of a listener at the precise moment of understanding."
In this way, Michaels merges the experience of place with the emotional experience of her characters. The two are inseparable. As the book progresses, there's a sense that this telling of stories, of life stories, becomes the place when place is taken away.
The book begins in Egypt as the couple is stationed there for Avery's work at raising a temple in anticipation of the diverting of the Nile River. He thinks this project will be a noble cause, saving instead of taking away. But while there Jean and Avery see how the desert communities will be covered up and the people displaced.
After the unexpected heartbreak of a miscarriage, the couple return to Canada, and they separate, Jean into the arms of a Polish Holocaust survivor and Avery into the study of architecture.
"The Winter Vault" is a book about rescuing oneself -- finding happiness within grief, learning how to go on, how to live. A book worth waiting for.
First Published August 9, 2009 12:00 am