Book review: The Winter Vault

After having read The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels, I feel like it’s almost a moral obligation to share it with as many people as I can. Michaels, who started her career as a poet, draws a lot of comparisons to her contemporary Michael Ondaatje – and for good reason, since the prose of both authors is so heart-achingly beautiful and lyrical that it really seems to somehow be as much poetry as it is prose. In my opinion, though, The Winter Vault does more for its genre (lyrical prose?) than do the books of Ondaatje or Michaels’s other novel, Fugitive Pieces. To explain what I mean by this, I should give a quick overview of the plot.

Jean, an aspiring botanist, and Avery, a young engineer, meet at the building site of the Lawrence Seaway between Lake Ontario and Montreal, among the towns and settlements soon to be submerged by the new construction. The story of their love and the life that they build together is crafted through the parallel plots of their time in Canada and their trip to Egypt for the building of the Aswan Dam. When tragedy strikes, the two separate without ever truly falling out of love; and it is in the second part of the novel, when Jean takes up with Polish émigré Lucjan, that Michaels takes a turn towards self-reflection. After devoting a large portion of her novel to the power of poetic language, weaving tenderly through the topics of love and human connection, to address and even overcome the tragedies that time brings, Michaels introduces a character whose beliefs reject this power completely. Haunted by his past, Lucjan espouses a kind of utilitarian cynicism that dismisses the ability of flowery language (lyrical prose, we may call it) to deal with the harsh realities of life.

To me, the best thing about Michaels’s writing is her refusal to oversimplify things into black and white. As the dams are being built, she brings up both the benefits of modernity and the heartbreak of the people being forced from their homes. While Jean is with Lucjan, it is easy to see both his healing influence on her and the hole that is left as she misses Avery. And most importantly, The Winter Vault offers no conclusive answer about the power and relevance of the genre to which it belongs; Michaels simply presents her beautifully crafted work along with its built-in criticism and lets her readers decide.

–          Anna Tripodi,  summer intern

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