Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Winter Vault

Title: The Winter Vault
Author: Anne Michaels
Year: 2009
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Rating: 4

Everyone knows that one guy that's just too articulate. You know, the guy who uses phrases like "his soul is courage," or maybe "it rolled out like a papyrus scroll in my palm." After awhile, it crosses the line from pleasantly odd to creepy to just plain annoying, no matter if he's right or wrong. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate those people-- they spice up life, give me something to think about when we're chatting across the table. But that kind of wording just doesn't really belong there, even if it is creative.
That is exactly the problem with Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault-- something about it is just off. The words all go together in beautiful order, lining up and falling into place with imagery that makes sense, but when compiled only make an enormous pile of pretty phrases. Not entirely unexpected for a poet, but still disappointing.
The novel follows the story of Avery and Jean, a Canadian newlywed couple come to the Nile valley to help with the relocation of Abu Simbel in order to build the Great Aswan Dam. Avery is an engineer and a "machine worshipper," whose mind works in a whirl of cogs and gears into a perfectly oiled machine. Jean, on the other hand, is a botanist, interested only in the growth of the exotic plants of the Egyptian river valley and the destruction that the dam is going to do to them. Tragedy unfolds and pulls the couple apart as they go back to the cold north, where Jean becomes involved with a Polish immigrant named Lucjan and Avery tries to get on with his life. Instead, they find that they're still caught up irretrievably in one another.
Unfortunately, the novel is not told nearly so cleanly. First, Michaels does away with all that "chapter" rubbish that us readers have been clinging to since the Dark Ages, replacing it with short sections that have no notation of time. This might have been fine if they didn't attempt T.S. Eliot-style time jumps, lurching back and forth between the past so suddenly that the reader is left seasick before twenty pages are past.
Avery and Jean's relationship, while soft and gentle in some places, is eyebrow-raisingly strange in others. For one, they always seem to end up talking about their parents in their spare seconds between cuddles, and is constantly interrupted by poetic epiphanies. From my experiences in the real world, poetry is the last thing that comes to my mind when I'm on a date.
The biggest, greyest, most awkward elephant in the room here is the language. Now, I'm pretty lenient about poetry in fiction-- after all, Homer and Shakespeare were both great novelists and poets-- but this book crosses the line into illegibility after awhile. Drowned in turns of phrase and tropes, the real thoughts of the characters become lost in the prose, and they become mere red blood cells for the oxygen of Michaels poetic thought. She ought to stick to poetry if she wants to make points about life without developing characters into human beings that her readers can relate to.
Not to say that the poetry is not breathtaking; Michaels clearly has talent as a writer. There are phrases and paragraphs that are deeply moving, thought provoking, and memorable, each clearly meditated and contemplatively written. Too bad they're just in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong book.
(On an unrelated note, ever read a novel by a Canadian? Americans with a penchant for foreign dialects will enjoy the Joyce-style quotations and the spellings of words like "tonne" and "colour.")
Some of the greatest books known to bibliophiles are those rife with beautiful phrasing, flowing with the deepest thoughts of their writers. And yet, they still create between those words the characters that have taken root so deeply in our hearts that they become inseparable from our very souls-- in other words, they are a part of us. That is the mark of truly good fiction: as Mr. Nabokov says, "the merging of the precision of poetry with the intuition of science."
The Winter Vault is available on the Kindle for $11.99, or $14.50 in hardback from Amazon. A copy was logged away in the back shelves of my local library, so unless your local branch has one, I wouldn't advise going and looking for it. The language is worth a glance, but no more than if you pick it up on the coffee table and read a page or two.

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