The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

25/04/09, The Times

Anne Michaels’s second novel, The Winter Vault, twelve years after her Orange Prize-winning first, Fugitive Pieces, begins in Egypt in 1964, then ranges over Canada, England, Holland, Poland. It attempts to tell the story of a couple, Jean Shaw and Avery Escher, inexplicably estranged by a tragic loss that happens to them while they are in the Egyptian desert, where Avery is supervising the elevation of the Abu Simbel temple to a site sixty metres higher because its current location is soon to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Yet the story gets nowhere because World Historical Events of Enormous Significance, henceforth WHEES, keep intruding to truncheon readers into remembering that the past is omnipresent, that history is a narrative of loss and suffering, that the imprint of loss is everywhere, remembered by stone, sand, earth, flowers.

Consequently, the characters, if such they can be called, are hardly credible, and it’s difficult to care for either their suffering or their stories. After Jean and Avery return to Canada, Jean takes up with a Polish immigrant called Lucjan, another cipher, who, in keeping with Michaels’ wild semaphoring of WHEES, has been through the reduction of Warsaw to rubble during the Second World War. Michaels’ chief mode of narration is incredibly prolix telling, not showing; her characters lie down next to each other and talk talk talk, page after page, about their past, their thoughts, and about WHEES. Transparent stand-ins for Michaels herself, they speak in factoid-riddled essays, long riffs on, say, botany, or the destruction of the Nubian homeland, and sometimes the WHE fall away, leaving only the core of ES in this intolerably portentous novel.

Pullulating on every page are sententious ‘deep thoughts’, which, pinned down, reveal themselves to be meaningless drivel, pearls of faux-wisdom masquerading as epigrams: ‘[The dead] wait, in histories of thousands of pages, where the word love is never mentioned …’ (awwww, poor poppets); ‘Nothing eats away time like the past’; ‘In every childhood there is a door that closes’; ‘… love must wait for wounds to heal. It is this waiting we must do for each other, not with a sense of mercy, or in judgment, but as if forgiveness were a rendezvous.’ Her characters actually speak like this. How’s this for an example: ‘Grief bakes in us, it bakes until one day the blade pushes in and comes out clean’? Engorged with gnomic utterances, written in unbearably precious prose, it is an insidiously sentimental work, hyperaestheticizing all the WHEES to kitsch and peddling an inauthentic nostalgia.