The Winter Vault
by Anne Michaels


Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-27082-5.
Reviewed by Karen Ballinger
Posted on 03/12/2009

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mainstream

The Winter Vault follows two characters, Avery and Jean, as Avery's work as a dam engineer takes them through Canada and Egypt, to villages and towns that will disappear behind the completed dam. The plot of the novel reveals itself slowly in flashback and character conversations. We travel through a surreal yet familiar world of vignettes, following Jean and Avery over the course of their relationship, their work and hobbies. Jean is a gardener, remembering her mother as she works in the dirt, while Avery remembers his father who was also an engineer.

As Jean and Avery get to know each other, their conversations are sprinkled with wisdom about life, such as "daughters don't stop crying for their mothers" and "we cannot separate the mistakes from our life; they are one and the same." This is a serious novel, to be read slowly and pondered over. My heart ached as Michaels' conveyed the grief the villagers felt as their towns were covered with water so deep they couldn't even visit their buried loved ones. I found myself caring for the characters right up to the end and wanting to know what happens to them. Flashbacks of WWII Poland also make up a large part of the last third of the book, painting a starker vision of loss during war.

Michaels' poetry background is evident in the carefully crafted phrases and descriptions of loss that remind the reader of his or her own losses in a very poignant way. Readers should be warned that the book is written in a limited punctuation style that does not detract from the clarity of the prose. I hope that the editing errors found in the Advanced Reader's Copy will be fixed in the final published edition.


Anne Michaels was born in Toronto and has previously written two works of poetry and the novel Fugitive Pieces. This is her second novel. More information on her work can be found here.

(See another review of this book, here)

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