I'm a bit late finishing up my Canadian Book Challenge this year (technically I finished on July 4th, but that's entirely the wrong birthday). Anne Michaels's The Winter Vault represents the last title in my "For the Ladies" theme that I was working within. Like so many of the books that I read over the course of the year, I found the writing strong and engaging in The Winter Vault. But I also have to admit that I have mixed feelings about this novel. In a sense, I can't decide whether or not I love it or find it extremely frustrating. Maybe I'll come to a conclusion at the end of this review.
I purposefully started reading the novel on June 30th. Knowing that we had Canada Day off, and knowing that I am a fairly quick reader, I figured that I'd have no trouble finishing it by sundown on July 1st. But the novel didn't grab my attention as I thought it would, the plot didn't seem to shake itself out early enough to pull me in, and the dialogue felt more like philosophical treatise than how people actually talk. Yet, every few pages there would be a sentence that would stop me in my tracks in terms of its beauty, its innovation (word use) and its utter writerly-ness. The story feels simple at first glance: a young couple who meet accidentally find themselves in Egypt during the building of the Aswan Dam. Avery works as an engineer and Jean has accompanied him. While there, a tragedy threatens to overwhelm them both as a couple and as individuals. Back in Canada, they attempt to put their lives back together, each in different ways, and suriviving becomes more about recognizing their bond as much as what separated them in the first place.
There are so many important parts to this novel. That Michaels imagines and integrates the loss of community, of culture, of landscape in terms of the pulsating forward motion of society into the novel is commendable. That she makes the setting of the beginning of the novel so foreign (Egypt) and the people so familiar (Canadian/British "colonial" interlopers with a heart) instills a political discussion of what progress actually means. It's heartbreaking for Jean to experience the loss of the displaced Egyptians, the Nubians whose culture had remained by the river for thousands of years, as the river swells up to create the power that will charge an entire country. It's thought-provolking for Avery to participate in the moving of the giant pyramid, recognizing the irony of destroy and saving culture at the same time. These discussions that the book seems to have through its characters, through their long rambling conversations, are so typical of the genius of Canadian literature. Of our writers' ability to insure that issues are crafted as parts of a story and are separated and exposed from more than one point of view, this is something I respect very much in terms of Michaels' The Winter Vault.
However, unlike a truly brilliant book like Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly, some of the overarching socio-political discussion gets lost because it isn't integrated well enough into the characters and/or the pacing of the novel. Great, vast swaths of text are narratively separate and sit outside the experience of Avery, Jean, and then later Lucjan (a man who befriends Jean while she and Avery are separated). There's no consistency of story within the text, and while the central relationship between Avery and Jean, their marriage, their love, is what binds everyone together, it might have been even more interesting to have them actually experience the more political parts of the novel. They seem apart from the action in a way, and even though they are there in Egypt, their personal experience in a sense seems beyond the more political observations the narrator makes on their behalf.
And this brings me to my last pickle: the dialogue. I had a conversation with a co-worker last week who fought vehmently for the side that people do exist in the world who are as intense and thought-provolking as Jean, Avery and Lucjan. That they do speak in two-three page long solioquays that underscore the meaning of life and the essence of human interaction -- all the time. But I'm not sure I agree. I will forever harken back to something a teacher once told me: "dialogue must seem ordinary but not be ordinary." Anne Michaels writes conversations that feel extraordinary -- long, rambling passages that feel like philosophical dialogues more than pure discussion. They seem to lecture rather than actually converse and each character remains alarmingly introspective. Their stories come out slowly, revealing the characters over time, instead of having the dialogue move the plot forward. This is not a fast-paced novel. It's a slow read, a book that forces you to pay attention to its details, to its every word.
All in all, I think I'll continue to sit on the fence about this book for a few more weeks. The Winter Vault is a novel worth studying, worth maybe even reading it alongside In the Skin of the Lion to see how the two compare (I really felt as though Michaels was writing back to Ondaatje with this book), and worth every moment of the time it'll take to read it.
READING CHALLENGES: The final book in this year's Canadian Book Challenge! Now I just have to think about what I'm going to read this year. Bestsellers? YA? Classics? I don't know! What books are your list? Any suggestions?
WHAT'S UP NEXT: Currently reading Guillermo del Toro's utterly spooky The Strain.