The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels is an intimate account of the lives of husband and wife Avery and Jean. It is a novel that blends historical fact, and one that combines two stories in one. The reader is a witness to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting Montreal and Lake Ontario. We are also witness to the building of the Aswan Dam in Egypt.
The reader almost feels as if they are present when the St. Lawrence Seaway is built and when it was completed in 1959.
We are privy to the most intimate of details during the tearing down and reconstruction efforts of the Nubian temple Abu Simbel in order to build the Aswan Dam. The threads of the word images are so strong that my senses were filled to capacity. Minute details are woven and take forms that evoke intense emotions and immense visuals. Historical fact and accuracy is apparent within the intense and compelling content of the pages.
Actions versus consequences are played out with quantitive measurements, causing the logarithms of energy and nature to illuminate and diminish. Both Avery and Jean feel the death toll, the demeaning of civilization, in order to pursue the inevitability of modern man and technology. That is a strong theme woven throughout The Winter Vault.
I remember traveling with my parents when I was an adolescent, to Montreal, and passing over the St. Lawrence River, and remember the awe I felt by the magnitude of the Seaway. We traveled over it at the end of July 1959, a month after the official opening of the Seaway on June 26,1959, from Long Island, New York to Montreal, in order to visit relatives. I distinctly remember my father (who was doing the driving) being completely impressed by the Seaway. But, I wonder now, after reading this book, if he was aware of the displacement of so many lives, communities, homes, businesses, natural environments and habitats, etc., that had to be sacrificed in order to create such a structure.
Avery and Jean’s story begins when they meet, and then in 1964 when, as newlyweds, they leave Toronto to live on a houseboat on the Nile.
Jean is a passionate botanist who was raised by her father due to the death of her mother. She is obsessed with botany and everything relating to growth. Her obsession and passion causes her to bring her mother’s garden wherever she goes. The growth of the plants symbolizes her mother’s nearness.
Avery is an engineer, and he is part of a team that is tearing down and then reconstruct a temple. The analogies between Avery’s love of engineering and his love of Jean coincide, both seemingly occupying the same space. Therein is the problem.
Jean and Avery experience an event that magnifies, amplifies and affects their lives in ways the reader doesn’t expect. This event causes them to separate and return to Canada, where Jean meets a Jewish-Polish artist who fills her soul with the horrific images of the Holocaust, one of mankind’s most destructive, physical events against humanity.
I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, and won’t divulge any more of the story line. As it is, I have been careful not to divulge too much. Suffice it to say that it is filled with depth, an energy level that is strong, emotional intensity and linguistics that define the historical in formats that are overwhelming.
Births and rebirths fill the lines. Love and grief combine, as does longing and loss. Michaels weaves an esoteric tapestry of time, filled with the essence of humanity and essence of destruction, both physical and architectural.
Her word imagery is strong, extremely magical and surreal, poetic and filled with a sense of time and place. She is masterful with her ability to infuse the pages with technical content, yet write with an almost reverent quality. She evokes an immediacy to return to the past in order to confront the present. She is an archivist and an architect, a poet and a historian. Anne Michaels is an amazing writer whose capacity to incorporate language and visuals is incredible, bringing the science of language and technology to a poetic form, a poetic balance in The Winter Vault.