Monday, May 25, 2009

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

Avery was a young engineer working on the dam of the St. Lawrence River in 1957 when he met Jean, his future bride. She was a botany student collecting plant samples from the area that would be flooded when the dam was complete. Whole towns would be covered and people were forced to move. This displacement is a central issue of the novel, presenting the question, what is home?

In 1964, Jean travels with Avery to the Nile river, where he oversees the dismantling and moving of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel before the Aswan dam floods the ancient kingdom of Nubia. 70,000 people in the Sudanese part of the flood area would lose their villages. This displacement was the result of a choice made by politicians; the moral question of such decisions is also central to the novel.

The third displacement is the story of Warsaw during the Second World War, a city completely and systematically destroyed by the departing German forces. How do we live through such actions and their consequences? How can we compare individual loss to greater devastation?

Michaels explores love, compassion and grief, the emotions that make us -- and keep us -- human. Her prose is breathtakingly beautiful. The Winter Vault is even better than Fugitive Pieces.


Cathy said...

Lovely summary, Lindy. I am delighted to find an in depth account of the events surrounding the moving of the temple and the horrific effects of displacing the Nile since visiting it in 1988. This is the perfect book to be reading while touring great monuments and trying to wrestle with their significance. I had to pause over and over to savour Michael's sentences. Like the sacred vaults she speaks of, her profound insights create their own "psychic" vault in the reader's mind.

Lindy said...

I also had to pause often to savour the sentences. This is a book that Nancy Pearl would describe as having a "language doorway."