13 May 2021

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

I picked this book up years ago because I'd read Michaels' Fugitive Pieces in a lit class and loved it. This is her only other novel to date as she usually writes poetry and for whatever reason it's just sat around unread until now. I'm really glad to have finally read it but it wasn't the easiest or most enjoyable book I've ever read.

The plot follows a couple named Jean and Avery who fall in love working along the St. Lawrence River and move to Egypt for Avery's work. I'm not entirely sure what he does but it seems like he's some sort of geographical engineer (is that a thing?) who consults and leads projects related to the changing of landscapes (adding dams, highways, etc.). A major mistake is made on the project in Egypt and parallel, a number of challenges and traumas present themselves in Jean and Avery's marriage. The second half of the book follows the two of them back in Canada working on their lives and trying to find a way to re-connect.

He watched her breath fill her lungs; as she lay on her side, he saw the curve of her hips, the crease behind her knee, the loose weight of her calf suspended. For this we erect monuments, kill ourselves, open shops, close shops, explode things, wake up in the morning..."

Michaels is Canadian so the parts of the plot that aren't in Egypt are in Toronto and Montreal. I really enjoy reading about familiar settings, it sort of grounds the characters and makes the story feel more real. I also really enjoy reading about crumbling marriages so there was a lot of good subject matter and I went into reading it with really high hopes.

Anne Michaels

Reading The Winter Vault reminded me of all the things I loved about Michaels' writing from Fugitive Pieces. It's very obvious she's a poet as she writes with very flowery and abstract language. Every paragraph has its own existentialism to it. The imagery is detailed, I can feel the characters' emotions really well, etc. The challenge with this, which I don't remember from Fugitive Pieces, is it became insanely hard to keep up with the plot. There were so many times when I got caught up in the writing itself and had no idea what was happening to the story. A re-read could maybe help me out but I don't have the stamina for it. 

I wonder if studying Fugitive Pieces in school helped me overcome this same challenge. I studied it chapter by chapter with an experienced lit professor and a room full of bushy-eyed readers and the magnifying glass of that experience maybe helped because I really did love that book. Or, it was just easier to read. I'd love to go back to it soon and say for sure.

Even in horror, there are degrees. And that is where the details matter most, because degrees are the only hope. And that's what keeps a man alive until the last second. Knowing that if he's lost one leg, at least it's not two. Or lost all his fingers, at least not his arm. To live a moment longer. That's often what belief is - the very last resort."

In her attempt to rehabilitate herself emotionally when they return from Egypt, Jean meets a man named Lucjan and begins a sort of weird, intimate relationship with him. Lucjan is a holocaust survivor and once Jean meets him the holocaust becomes a big part of the story. Michaels creates all kind of parallels between all of the characters' experiences and they teach each other about loss, grief, and remembering.

My favourite parts of the book were about Avery's job. He works to change landscapes but he is very emotionally affected by how his job affects the people who live on them. Human geography has never interested me in the slightest but in this particular context I was really fascinated by it.

If you move his body then you'll have to move the hill. You'll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children. You'll have to move the sun because it sets among those trees. And move his mother and his father and his younger sister... They're all company for one another and those graves are old, so you'll have to move the earth with them to make sure nothing of anyone is left behind. Can you promise me that? Do you know what it means to miss a man for twenty years?... You'd have to move my promise to him that I'd keep coming to his grave to describe that very place as I used to when we were first married and he hurt his back and had to stay in bed for three months - every night I described the view from the hill above the farm and it was a bit of sweetness - for forty years - between us. Can you move that promise? Can you move what was consecrated? Can you move the exact empty place in the earth I was to lie next to him for eternity?"

I can't think of anyone I know who would like this unfortunately. I feel like it would have been better formatted as a poetry series, but what do I know? The writing is very dreamy and beautiful but sometimes simple is best for the sake of storytelling, in my opinion. I'm sure a lit prof could have me convinced that this is the greatest piece of Canadian writing going but I'm not in lit class anymore.

I will just end with my favourite passage in the whole book. Jean is remembering when her mother died when she was younger and I just feel like I can imagine this exact scenario and it's so frigging sad:

When my mother was in the hospital she asked my father to bring flowers, her flowers. Watching him cut them from her garden was the first time I understood how ill she was. That day my father wandered around the kitchen boiling eggs, boiling potatoes, making lots of toast. He didn't know what to do. He made the few things he knew how to cook. We ate in silence at that little red-and-white kitchen table, and everything tasted terrible. We listened to each other chewing and swallowing. Everything looked the same, the little square bumpy salt-and-pepper cellars with their red plastic caps, and the little bit of lace under the butter dish. But suddenly it was a different house, a replica of the house I knew."

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