Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: No time to waste


Time, memory, and storytelling collide – or perhaps corroborate – in Anne Michaels’s new novel The Winter Vault. Like fellow Canadian author/poet Michael Ondaatje, Michaels prose is enfused with such a weight, a weight of words and of symbolism, that yearns to be free of its own chains, a blessing and a curse to this novel.

The Winter Vault tells the story of Avery and Jean, a married couple that meets along the St Lawrence waterway in the 50s and now find themselves a few years later in Egypt. Jean, a botanist, is pregnant with Avery’s child but still manages to do a bit of botany. Avery is an engineer with a poet’s mind and eye, heading up the moving of Nubian temples brick by brick so that the river can be shifted. (This of course creates more problems than it solves, as the river is never the same again, as people have to be shifted from their towns to start anew.) Jean has a premonition of a local boy dying, and the following day he drowns – and she suggests that she should have done something about this, or ‘Then what is prescience for.’ And with that she believes that the reason her daughter was born stillborn was due to the fact that she didn’t save the boy.
This brings us back to Canada where Avery and Jean try a separation. Jean finds herself living with a Polish √©migr√© painter Lucjan, another man who’s touched by the world. Avery enrolls in university to study architecture, a nice foil to his engineering knowledge. And slowly do we start to understand that Michaels isn’t interested in telling a story at all.
Although The Winter Vault is infused with storytelling – people telling one another stories perhaps makes up 75 per cent of the novel – the novel itself isn’t interested in following a plotline that takes us from point A to point B. Like Michael Ondaatje, the narrative moves forward and backward, from one person’s perspective to another’s, bringing in folklore and anecdote to reveal how humans truly connect with each other. Storytelling creates intimacy – especially in a novel setting – and Michaels is aiming to show how people are incomplete without one another’s stories. In that it is a moving treatise on human connection and how it’s so fragile, needing a whole lot of work and a whole lot of love.
My few complaints about this book is that it remains strongly ephemeral and that it remains a narrative that wants to be out of reach. For a novel that is also interested in the physical – the major event of the story is a loss of a child; Avery’s first job is to be an engineer and his statements are infused with the respect and admiration for machines and the tangible; and the beginning and end of this novel are about painting on rock and on skin – the prose is airy and bogged with philosophical notions. Which is why perhaps Michaels is more of a poet than a novelist. Phrases that are so swelled and pregnant with higher notions are fine, but when there is over 300 pages of this, it becomes tiresome.
Example: ‘It was as if the architect had anticipated every minute effect of weather, and of weather on memory, every combination of atmosphere, wind, and temperature, so that we are drawn to the different parts of a room depending on the hour of the day, the season, as if he could invent memory, create memory! And this embrace of every possibility, of light, weather, season – every calculation of climate – is also the awareness of every possibility of life, the life that is possible in such a building. And the sudden freedom of this is profound. It’s like falling in love, the feeling that here, at last here, one can be one’s self, and the true measure of one’s life can be achieved – aspirations, the various kinds of desire – and that moral goodness and intellectual work are possible. A complete sense of belonging to a place, to oneself, to another. All this in a building? Impossible, but also, somehow, true. A building gives us this, or takes it from us, a gradual erosion, a forgetting of parts of ourselves . . .’
It’s beautiful language, but so much of it makes the novel arduous and ponderous. Yet that is perhaps it’s greatest strength, to be able to force us to forget about notions of plot and character, of nationality and demarkation – and to allow us to be enthralled by the wonders of thought and storytelling.


Kari said…

This sounds like one of those books that would make me feel educated after reading but would take me FOREVER to get through.

Salvatore said…

It kind of washes over you because there’s not too much to grab on to (for good or ill, mostly for good). But I do feel like I learned a bit about engineering, botany, and painting. Or perhaps just the human mind.