One of the early albums by the 1980s new wave band Talking Heads is More Songs About Buildings and Food. If the titans of Canadian fiction issued a similarly titled collection of work, it would most likely be called More Novels About Memory and Loss. In Canada, much of our most venerated fiction has the feel of high-minded scrapbooks. Don’t get me wrong: themes don’t come more classic than memory and loss, and readers seem to treasure books that overflow with backward-looking mournfulness. But too much woe is, well, too much. Authors who trade in a sort of literary keening – who craft epic tragedies, create artfully sorrowful characters, and painstakingly arrange every thought and incident into funereal wreaths of prose – invite criticism.
So where does this leave Anne Michaels, a specialist in memory and loss if there ever was one?
Her new novel, The Winter Vault, spans the period roughly between the end of the Second World War and the end of the 1960s, and takes place in Egypt, Canada, Britain, and Poland. It opens on the Nile, where a young English structural engineer, Avery Escher, is supervising the dismantling of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, and its reconstruction up the river. Both Avery and Jean, his Canadian botanist wife, are uneasy about the uprooting of history, about the fact that “the replica … allows the original to be forgotten.” At home on their houseboat, the couple lie in the heat, taking comfort in reading to each other and exchanging memories. Their stay in Wadi Halfa is the second time Avery and Jean have witnessed – and become culpable in – destruction and exodus. The two met by a river in Canada, the same water that Avery would later help reroute into the new St. Lawrence Seaway.
Over time, the couple find themselves revisiting their own histories as their surroundings are broken down and taken away. Following the loss of a child, their relationship is transformed. Jean has an affair with Lucjan, a Polish artist who endured the Red Army occupation of Warsaw, and later aided in the reconstruction of the Old Town. But Lucjan proves too wayward a lover, and Jean is burdened with her own long-buried emotions. In the book’s last pages, she and Avery meet again at their daughter’s gravesite.
Despite being best known for her 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces, Michaels is primarily a poet, and The Winter Vault seems to have a poetic intent. It wants to bring a poet’s eyes, and a poet’s insights, to some of life’s big questions: How do we cope with the forces of history? Can love conquer death? Ultimately, the novel is about the eradication of civilizations and the ways in which survivors must cope with newly clean slates.
There are two kinds of language in The Winter Vault: genuinely profound and evocative phrases and ideas; and the other, hothouse stuff, the kind of affected wordplay that causes some people to steer clear of big books about memory and loss. Whether or not the book succeeds depends on the reader’s appetite for the language that thrives in what might be called Poetryworld.
Poetryworld is a hermetic, overperfumed dimension in which characters start out as sensitive, artistic, professorial, and tasteful, and then become even more so. (“Jean, what I said about sadness … what I mean is the building and the space it possesses should help us be alive, it should allow for the heeding of things.”) In Poetryworld there is no vulgarity or surprise; there are no brand names, guffaws, hangnails, chase scenes, blow jobs, or other people in the world who are more interesting than our heroes. There are no meals without crusty bread and rustic cheese, landscapes that aren’t wracked with sorrow, or lovers who aren’t artists. Characters think and speak in weird, gnomic sentences – “You use that marsh like the desert, she said” – or in thudding, cryptic observations: “How much a woman’s body belongs to herself, how much the clay of a man’s gaze.” The word that best suits Poetryworld is suffused. Everything, from bricks to bodies, is full of portent. A stone is rarely a chunk of rock: it’s a talisman, or a relic, or a mute witness to agony.
Because Michaels is such an unrelenting artist – she bejewels every square inch – The Winter Vault ends up giving us everything but space. No memory or death or tragedy or whisper of the past is allowed to pass without poetic handling, so readers are left with few mysteries or personal interpretations or stray shadings to fill in for themselves. Some people will love all that writerly fulsomeness; others might admire the writer’s vision, but long for more room to breathe.