The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels

I have heard people complain about literary fiction, saying that a particularly felicitous image or turn of phrase throws the reader out of the book as she pauses to appreciate the author’s artistry. More commonly this complaint refers to an isolated literary bit in a book whose overall tone is directed to a more general, a.k.a. popular, readership.

While I agree that consistency of tone is important, I love those moments when something on the page spreads wings and carries me off, astonished and enchanted. I suppose this predilection is why I love poetry with its empty spaces and the surprising leaps that launch my own imagination.

Michaels is a poet with three poetry collections out, and she brings all of those skills to building this story. The tone is consistent throughout: a deeply sensuous language with layers of thought and imagery. Emotion runs deep as well, in sentences of almost unbearable beauty.

Young married couple, Avery and Jean, are living on a houseboat on the Nile while Avery works on a high-profile engineering project. It is 1964 and the flooding of the desert at Abu Simbel due to construction of the Aswan dam threatens the great tombs of Ramses and Nefertari, with their towering stone figures. Avery’s responsibility is to compute stresses and strains to ensure that the figures and the temple they guard are safely disassembled and reassembled on higher ground.

In short swells of prose that sing like poetry, each word carefully considered and placed, Michaels leads us backwards and forwards in time, building up resonances around what it means to flood this huge area. We learn about the blind man who climbs unassisted onto the knee of the Pharaoh every day and sings. We hear tales about the building of the tombs and about their discovery. We meet the sympathetic Hassan Dafalla, who is responsible for relocating the people of the villages that will be drowned. We learn of the date trees that the villagers have nurtured for hundreds of years that supply not just food, but also material for baskets, thatch for roofs, every necessity. We hear how shares in each tree have been split and split again until only the oldest woman in the village can determine how the harvest should be divided.

Avery considers his own responsibility in this endeavour, wondering if the reconstructed temple can ever be more than a simulacrum of its former self, like a recording of birdsong. He remembers a similar project back in Canada on the St. Lawrence where he met Jean. The stories of their separate lives and their coming together are nuanced and profoundly moving. Running through all the narratives are themes of loss and love, of change and the art of living, the hard work of sorting reality from illusion. “‘We become ourselves when things are given to us and when things are taken away,'” Avery’s mother tells Jean.

The story of these two people and their life together rides gently on these emotional and philosophic currents; it is engrossing by itself, but deepened by being rocked within these layers of meaning.

A stunning and beautiful book, one that made me breathless with wonder and left me thinking about the questions it raised: that is what I thought about Michaels’s first novel, Fugitive Pieces. This one is even better.

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