Click here to read reviewer Sam Sattler's take on The Winter Vault.
“When ground is too frozen for the digging of graves… the dead wait in these winter vaults. There is always a dignity to these buildings – whether make of brick or stone with expensive brass fittings or just a humble wooden shed – because they are built with respect for those who will lie within their walls.” (p. 241) In her most recent novel The Winter Vault, Anne Michaels takes readers on an emotional journey through the intricate lives of three complex characters as they experience the ravages of history in the twentieth century.
Jean, the amateur botanist, and Avery, the ambitious engineer, meet during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s. Avery and his fellow engineers are preparing to flood an immense area around the St. Lawrence where many communities will disappear. The two share concerns about the thoughtless destruction of farms and homes as a result of the flooding. Both have lost parents and long for family connections. As they slowly come together, their love grows and marriage follows. In 1964, Jean and Avery travel to Egypt, where Avery faces the incredible task of taking apart the temple at Abu Simbel to systematically relocate it before the Aswan Dam construction project floods the area forever. Jean and Avery are both shocked by the potential impact of this building project.
As the project continues, the couple awaits the arrival of their first child. However, when tragedy strikes, they retreat into their own separate worlds and return to Toronto. Jean studies botany and meets enigmatic Polish artist Lucjan. Avery buries himself in his architectural studies. Will they continue on separate paths, or be reunited in their grief?
In The Winter Vault, Michaels examines the ravages of time through the lens of several significant historical events of the twentieth century: the destruction and subsequent reconstruction of Warsaw during and after the Second World War, the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, and the relocation of the Temple of Abu Simbel in the 1960s. All of these events were traumatic and changed lives forever. The citizens of Warsaw, represented by Lucjan and his friends, survived through shear brute determination, living in holes in the street and groveling for food while trying to preserve their humanity. The St. Lawrence Seaway, while an economically viable project, was very destructive to those inhabitants of the areas which were flooded. The effects of the Aswan Dam flooding were staggering: countless acres of Egypt and Nubia were inundated, and an ecosystem that had existed for thousands of years was destroyed.
“The new ecology would attract destructive micro-organisms that would thrive in the new moist environment, and introduce new pests… that would devastate the very crops the dam was meant to make possible.” (p.34) Nubian villagers lost their entire known world when they were located so that Lake Nasser can be created.
Anne Michaels is a Toronto-based writer and poet. Her first novel, Fugitive Pieces (1996), won several prestigious awards, including the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. Michaels has also written three poetry collections, and her poetic sensibility resonates throughout The Winter Vault. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf and Michael Ondaatje, Michaels creates a complex philosophical and poetic world for readers while exploring the harsh and bitter realities and disappointments of life in which “The future casts its shadow on the past.” (p. 1)