The Winter Vault
by Anne Michaels

Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-27082-5.
Reviewed by Edith O'Nuallain
Posted on 03/31/2009

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Mainstream

Though she is the author of two novels, Anne Michaels is first and foremost a poet. Before publishing her first novel in 1999, she had already won prestigious prizes for two poetry collections. But whether penning poetry or prose, Michaels is an accomplished wordsmith, whose mastery of the poetic form is evident. She weaves words into a seamless, magical tapestry, twisting sounds and meaning until they seem to shimmer and glimmer in a spellbinding whole. One can even read her without any further expectations of meaning beyond the sheer enjoyment of her alluring style, which is just as well, since her narrative and meaning often emerge very, very slowly. Indeed, sometimes her language is so rich that it is difficult for the reader to maintain the continuity of the story.

Nor is the trajectory of the narrative always linear. The result is to leave the reader somewhat unsettled, so that in the end the reader is often left lost and floundering, almost as much as one of the characters. Yet this is a masterful tactic, for it is as if we, the reader, have entered the novel too. We also are altered by the very act of reading Michaels' words.

Characterization and background are set in place via dialogue between the main protagonists. The story's perspective moves from the tiniest, most minute and intimate details of the life of a new husband and wife, switching suddenly to encompass a broader landscape, the contours of which bear all the cruel marks of development in the name of progress and modernity. This novel is much more than the recounting of a personal tragedy. Michaels uses her narrative as an opportunity to comment upon the devastation wreaked on traditional cultures for the sake of money and greed.

The story begins on the Nile. There is a husband, a young and sensitive engineer, and his new wife who has joined her spouse on his latest assignment. But over time and across the pages, engineering structures and human lives begin to unravel. Grief and sorrow take their toll on a marriage devastated by loss. Only a poet of Anne Michaels' stature could explore so hauntingly the contours of lives ripped apart by the uncontrollable forces of death and grief. This is a tale that will infiltrate your dreams.

Yet even in the darkest scenes, when you can taste the despair, there is always the sense that this is not the end. This is a novel that attempts to display the entire range of emotions a single heart can bear. In the end, the novel repays the reader with the perennial hope of all hearts—that yes, there is hope, though whether it is real, or imagined, is left untold.

Anne Michaels is the author of three collections of poetry. Her first novel, Fugitive Pieces, was published to worldwide critical acclaim. It won the Orange Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. It was also made into a major motion picture. Anne Michaels has also composed music for the theatre.

Born in 1958, Anne Michaels lives in Toronto.

(See another review of this book, here)

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