After the waters pass
Set aside your spring chores and cancel the rest of your plans when you pick up The Winter Vault. Thirteen years after her first novel, Fugitive Pieces, Canadian writer Anne Michaels unfolds the unforgettable story of Avery and Jean, who meet near land flooded by the St. Lawrence Seaway project. After their marriage, they live in Egypt, where Avery is an engineer responsible for rescuing the temples at Abu Simbel from the floodwaters of the Nile, as part of the Aswan High Dam construction in the mid-1960s. In both projects, lives and memories are uprooted with the landscape as entire communities are relocated. Michaels uses the structure of the novel to portray this displacement and this dislocation, juxtaposing water against desert, flow against flood, showing some of the ways people respond to emotional and physical dislocation.
In Egypt, Avery works with old sandstone and modern plans, while Jean observes the locals and tries to understand their lives. When their first child dies in utero, their relationship breaks. Their loss is the stone in the river that a Nubian friend describes as the one that splits the waters.
Back in Canada, Avery does not know how to help Jean—or himself—grieve, and leaves her. She becomes involved with Lucjan, an older man who survived the war as a Jewish orphan in Warsaw, and is now known as the Caveman because of the paintings he creates on Toronto fences late at night. He draws Jean, and they become lovers. It is Lucjan’s stories—and his challenges—that help Jean start to return to life. A year after their daughter’s death, Jean and Avery meet, unplanned, at her grave, and begin to walk back to each other.
Michaels is the author of three books of poetry, and her phrases and images echo back and forth through the novel. The title refers to the buildings where bodies wait until the ground thaws and graves can be dug, a metaphor for the temporary holding place we all visit in our lives, but rarely name. The Winter Vault requires close reading, but when you finish, you’ll want to turn back and read it all again.
Leslie Budewitz lives and writes near Flathead Lake in western Montana.