Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Winter Vault - Ann Michaels

Those who read and loved Anne Michael's first book 'Fugitive Pieces' have had to wait over a decade for her second novel 'The Winter Vault'. This is a complex and ambitious novel which carries forward some of the themes found in her earlier novel particularly that of our connection with the land in an elemental sense, not just where we are born or live but where we belong.

The book initially centres on recently married Avery and Jean who are in Egypt. Avery, an engineer, is involved in the dismantling and relocation to another site of the Abu Simbel temple, the site of which will be flooded to make way for the Aswan Dam. As Avery works on the deconstruction of the temple he and Jean at night work on the construction of their relationship, telling each other about their history and past. They are building an enviable relationship filled with intimacy and silence and talk.

'It was as if, long ago, a part of him had broken off inside, and now finally, he recognized the dangerous fragment that had been floating in his system, causing him intermittent pain over the years. As if he could now say of the ache: "Ah. It was you."'
But around them, not only is the temple being relocated, thousands of people whose villages will be inundated with water are being moved to new settlements hundreds of miles from where their ancestors have lived and are buried. Avery is haunted by the fear that by moving the temple he is merely creating a copy of the original, that something significant will be lost and this concern is echoed in the creation of the new villages for the displaced, where villagers were neighbours they are now thousands of miles apart and families are torn asunder.

When a tragedy strikes Jean and Avery are unable to deal with the scale of their loss together and agree to separate. The novel then takes a turn away from the joint story of Jean and Avery to concentrate on Jean and her journey back from loss. This narrowing of focus acts as a lense for Michael's to move away from the larger themes of the loss suffered by whole peoples down to the personal tragedies and losses of individuals.

The second part of the novel finds Jean and Avery in Toronto living separately. Jean becomes a guerrilla gardener, planting in public spaces at night as a way of evoking memories in passers by when they smell the scent of the plants she has placed in the ground. She meets Lucjan aka 'The Caveman', a graffiti artist and Polish emigre with whom she begins a relationship. Lucjan lived in the destroyed wastes of Warsaw during the Second World War and helped in it's rebuilding - an almost exact copy of what had been destroyed. This fact provides a link between the two men in the novel together with the the need for Lucjan to tell his story in much the same way that Avery and Jean told theirs at the beginning of the book

'I need you to listen as if theses memories are your own. The details of this room, this view from the window, these clothes heaped on the chair, the hairbrush on the bedside table, the glass on the floor, everything must disappear. I need you to hear everything I say, and everything I can't say must be heard too'
Lucjan's story is also of displacement and relocation. Neither he nor his circle of emigre friends has settled in their new homeland, they remember and relive their homeland every day, leading us to question the wisdom of Michael's apparent premise that we are inextricably linked to our ancestral home. For if we are unable to move on into our new life (as some undoubtedly are) we become stalled forever living in the past. A question that has particular resonance for the Irish both historically and now when so many are once again leaving.
'The Winter Vault' is a story of loss. Loss of earth, land, history, town, home, family, life, past, partner and child. It is also a story of exile and grief and asks the question what is home. A winter vault is the building the dead are stored in the winter when the ground is too hard to dig a grave, it is where they wait until they are returned to the ground. To me the winter vault is that time of exile, before settlement in a new home, land or life. Lucjan has failed to emerge from the winter vault his life has become carrying with him his past,unable to move into his new life in Canada. Can Jean and Avery emerge from the winter vault their lives became after their personal tragedy?
As previously stated this book is a complex work filled with information, questions and ideas. It is not a quick read (hence the amount of time since my last post!) and is dense with language. Whilst beautifully written and asking big questions the book lacks the narrative impetus of 'Fugitive Pieces'. Undoubtedly 'The Winter Vault' will be loved for it's ambition and language but a little more space within the narrative would not have gone astray, it is a book in which it is difficult to see the wood for the trees.

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