It's not until the second half of Anne Michaels's new novel that the significance of its enigmatic, ominous title is revealed.
A winter vault, we learn, is a building where the dead are stored in cold climates until the ground thaws enough for their interment. "The winter dead wait," a character explains, "for the earth to relent and receive them." It is an image that resonates within the acoustic of this fine novel in a variety of ways - including the circumstances of its publication.
Michaels first came to the forefront of Canadian letters with the publication of Fugitive Pieces, her debut novel, which was successful almost beyond measure, not just in this country but the world over.
I should admit to being a fan, to having done all the same things that people do upon first reading Fugitive Pieces. I read pages aloud. I underlined passages, went back and asterisked them, then went back and underlined them again.
And I waited for a second novel. But none came. It has been 13 years. Now, finally, like something exhumed from the distant past, comes The Winter Vault .
Has it been worth the wait?
We pick up the story in Egypt, just as the Aswan High Dam is being built. Designed to prevent the Nile from flooding, the dam will divert the great and ancient river, and in the process create Lake Nassar. It will also obliterate the ancient nation of Nubia, "a country without boundaries, currency, or government, yet an ancient country nonetheless."
In addition to relocating the Nubians, there is the question of how to salvage the ancient temples at Abu Simbel of the Pharaoh Rameses II and his queen, Nefertari. This is what brings Avery Escher and his new wife, Jean, to Egypt. Avery is one of the engineers hired to oversee the preservation effort, the cutting up of the massive, ancient stonework into blocks, and its subsequent reconstruction. It is a project fraught with ambivalence.
"Simulation is the perfect disguise," observes the disembodied narrative voice in which a great deal of the novel is rendered. "The replica, which is meant to commemorate, achieves the opposite effect: It allows the original to be forgotten." What is it that Avery is really doing? Is he saving the temples? Or rendering their erasure more complete?
From Egypt, we are catapulted back in time to Ontario, where preparations are under way for construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The parallels are clear: Another river is being diverted in the name of progress, another group of innocent people are being forced from their homes and way of life.
A younger Avery is there as well, one of the engineers engaged in constructing the dam. Here he meets Jean, as she is making her way along the first part of the already diverted river collecting samples of the plant life, for posterity.
"I'm keeping a record," she tells Avery. "I'm going to transplant these particular plants, this particular generation." It is a pivotal modulation, the moment when we begin to understand the wider coherence of the novel, that the real attraction between Avery and Jean is their shared conviction that the world, or parts of it, anyway, can be saved.
After that first meeting of our lovers, what ensues are a series of conversations between Jean and Avery in which they reveal their respective pasts to one another. It is these conversations - forming a series of highly plumed lyrical monologues - that make The Winter Vault work more like an epic poem than a novel. Think of the Arabian Nights , or the Odyssey , where characters incessantly tell stories about themselves and others; these are texts that carry whole cultures within themselves, and Michaels achieves something similar here.
Michaels is at her best when writing about trauma, and, fortunately for us, there is hardly a character in this book who has not suffered some traumatic, shattering loss at some point.
Avery, for instance, tells Jean his boyhood memory of descending onto a train platform in Turin, where he sees a hand-painted sign stating how many were sent to their deaths from that very place during the German occupation. "One could probably not walk a block without stepping into a place of mourning," is Jean's reply, "we could not mark them all." Filtered through the screen of Michaels's lyrically tragic sensibility, such piling on of painful insights into the human condition is not depressing. Or not merely depressing. We come to understand that there is something worthwhile, even enlightening, about the process of speaking aloud these memories of loss.
Meanwhile, the disaster of the present, the wreckage of history, is accumulating around them. The novel returns to Egypt, where Avery is immersing himself in his salvage efforts and Jean is bearing witness to the last moments of the Nubian civilization. While there, Jean and Avery suffer a great loss that takes a toll on their relationship, and they return to Toronto irrevocably changed.
Back in Canada, they lead mostly separate lives. Jean meets a Polish artist named Lucjan, from Warsaw. He tells Jean his stories, as Avery did, and the novel expands again to include the trauma of the Holocaust and its aftermath, along with the ambiguities surrounding the reconstruction of Warsaw after the war. "I need you to listen," Lucjan tells Jean, "as if these memories are your own. ... I need you to hear everything I say, and everything I can't say must be heard too."
The Winter Vault is a beautifully written though somewhat difficult book. Michaels's prose is sometimes faulted - wrongly, I think - for being too lyrical or overly poetic, the kind of thing that has no business in a novel. Indeed, we feel Michaels sometimes straining against the form of the novel, and such strain is not easily borne in every instance. A single example may suffice. Avery is watching Jean as she gazes out over the changed Ontario landscape: "Her head, he was sure, was bursting with thought" - even granting poetic licence, it is an unfortunate line.
But The Winter Vault can justify its excesses. This is a book that proposes great themes: a critique of progress, an exploration of the nature of human suffering, an interrogation of the relationship between past and present. And yet, for all of that, it remains at bottom a deeply affecting love story about intimacies and distances that grow, shift and dissolve between people - and about how we all carry within us a secret place where we store our wounds until the world thaws adequately for us to bury them.
Anne Michaels, in short, is back.
Steven Hayward, author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, divides his time between Toronto and Colorado Springs, where he teaches at Colorado College.