three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
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0

A-The Winter VaultMore than a decade has passed since Canadian Anne Michaels’ first novel, Fugitive Pieces, became an international best seller and won the Orange Prize for Fiction. In her lyrical second novel, she continues to explore the themes of love, loss, and the human condition.

The Story: In 1964, newlyweds Avery and Jean temporarily settle into a houseboat on the Nile River. Avery, a British engineer, is set to begin work on the temple at Abu Simbel, an ancient shrine that must be relocated, stone by stone, to make way for the Aswan Dam. Jean, a Canadian botanist, revels in her new marriage and spends her days studying the diverse Egyptian foliage. But as Avery witnesses the displacement of native villagers, he starts to question his role in the dissolution of a way of life. Adding to his turmoil is an intensely personal disaster, one that sends the young couple down two very unexpected paths.
Knopf. 352 Pages. $25. ISBN: 0307270823

Denver Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Michaels takes the reader so deeply into her characters and their surrounds that it feels like knowing their souls. … The Winter Vault is gorgeous in its detail, its intimacy, its depth of character, and ultimately its characters’ paths to redemption." Robin Vidimos

Kansas City Star 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Winter Vault is a densely packed repository. Read it for its scale of reference, its aching wisdom, its brutal beauty." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Michaels produces passages of lyrical beauty, and eloquently expresses her horror at human violence inflicted on the land and its inhabitants. Yet the novel’s emotional impact remains subdued, in part because Michaels at times allows her lessons—of botany, history, architecture—to overwhelm her story; and in part because of the abrupt narrative shift halfway through." Sylvia Brownrigg

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Michaels, a Toronto teacher and poet, makes prose that feels wrought, every word serving a moral seriousness so intense as to broach a kind of sublimity. Like its predecessor, The Winter Vault reads quietly, but with breathtaking power." Joan Frank

Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the first part of the book poetic vision and narrative momentum combine to produce writing of dangerously beautiful intensity. … A flawed novel. … But magnificent, all the same." Jane Shilling

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Jean and Avery are both ethereal and a little bland, rarely breathing. It’s not that Michaels can’t create vivid characters—Avery’s mother, Marina, jumps off the page—but that the book is about the ideas these people inspire and express, rather than the characters themselves." Moira Macdonald

Dallas Morning News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"How well readers like it will depend on their patience with character-driven cerebral fiction. … Winter Vault explores this notion of displacement and loss through the thoughts and conversations (monologues, really) that Jean and Avery exchange." Anne Morris

Critical Summary

Anne Michaels has published several acclaimed poetry collections, including The Weight of Oranges and Miner’s Pond. Her background as a poet shines through in The Winter Vault, which awed critics with its many elegant, vibrant, and luminous passages and Michaels’s endless curiosity about science, engineering, and architecture. Unfortunately, many of these same critics were conflicted in their overall reviews: they reluctantly felt hampered by rolling monologues, pedantic segments, uninspiring characters, and an awkward story structure. The San Francisco Chronicle even remarked: "[T]hese long recitations of memory and conjecture, while exquisite, grow exhausting." Overall, critics cited this latest from Michaels as a beautiful, important novel, but they were skeptical of its widespread appeal.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Discuss the metaphor of the title, The Winter Vault.

2. Have you read Michaels's first novel, Fugitive Pieces? What parallels do you see between that novel and her new novel?

3. Reread the two passages at the very beginning. Now that you've read the entire book, what do the phrases “No image forgets this origin” and “No word forgets this origin” mean to you?

4. The book opens with Avery painting Jean's back, and closes with her painting his. What is the significance of this act?

5. Throughout the novel, themes of human destruction and rebuilding play out. What do you think Michaels is trying to say? Can you think of any destruction in the novel that's not human in origin?

6. How does Jean's botany connect to Avery's work?

7. What is the purpose of the Belzoni flashback on pages 30-32?

8. Why does Georgina Foyle affect Avery so strongly?

9. Words carry a lot of weight with the characters, especially through their storytelling. How do Avery, Jean, and Lucjan use words to achieve-or avoid-intimacy?

10. On page 93, Marina says, “Love must wait for wounds to heal.” Whose wounds is she talking about? How does this notion resonate throughout the novel?

11. Avery longs to save something, rather than destroy things. How does he finally do this?

12. Discuss the idea of home. How does it differ for the Nubians, the Poles, Avery, Jean, Lucjan?

13. On page 140, Jean talks about virtually indestructible seeds, which can lay dormant for centuries before sprouting. What is she really talking about?

14. “I want to build the room where I wish I'd been born,” Avery says on page 158. What does he mean by that?

15. How does Jean's dream (pages 166-7) relate to her pregnancy? How does it change her?

16. What is the connection between Jean's after-hours gardening and Lucjan's “Caveman” paintings?

17. On pages 202-3, Jean realizes Lucjan's painting “was not about Lascaux but about exile and the seizing of joy that will not come of its own accord.” Who else tries to seize joy, and how do they do it?

18. Reread the paragraph on page 214 that begins, “Cities, like people, are born with a soul. . .” Could you say the same about the Nubian countryside and the small towns along the St. Lawrence?

19. Daub writes to Jean (page 249): “Perhaps there is a collective dead. But there is no such thing as a collective death. Each death, each birth, a single death, a single birth.” What does this mean for Jean, for Lucjan, for the post-Holocaust world?

20. How does the jazz group the Stray Dogs fit into the larger story?

21. Reread and discuss Ranger's rant on pages 266-7.

22. Several times in the novel, Lucjan tells Jean that we only get one chance to be happy in life, and if something goes wrong, that chance is lost forever. Where do you think that turning point is for him? For Jean? And Avery? Do you agree with this theory?

23. “Regret is not the end of the story; it is the middle of the story”(page 336). The novel closes with this thought. What does it mean?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.