the observer Sat 30 May 2009
Anne Michaels's first novel, Fugitive Pieces, won the Orange Prize in 1997 and was described by John Berger (whose style is not dissimilar to Michaels's) as "the most important book I have read for 40 years". Readers were divided into those who agreed and those who found it a struggle. Michaels, a Canadian poet, has high expectations of her readers. Her novels - intricate and metaphorical - ask to be read with the same close attention that one would apply to poetry. Her narrative thread is spun out of gossamer. It unspools through emotion. She is not interested in narrative's fast fixes, nor in explanation or hand-holding.
Her second novel, The Winter Vault (a place where bodies are stored when it is too cold to dig graves) is recognisably a sister to the first and its emotional intensity is comparable. Her subject is loss and salvage. She describes love as "not the moment of bringing your whole life to another - but rather, it is everything you leave behind". Later, she goes further: "Everything in this world is what has been left behind." The setting dramatises her elegiac theme: it is 1963 and the Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel needs rescuing from the rising waters of the Aswan dam. Avery, a young British engineer, presides uneasily over this gigantic, fraught enterprise before retiring each night to a houseboat on the Nile with his Canadian wife.
What fascinates Michaels is the nature of manmade calamity and the losses it creates. Avery's wife, Jean, discovers she is pregnant, but her joy is short-lived: she gives birth to a stillborn daughter. Her acute, small-scale sorrow is thrown into relief against the grander landscape of loss. And then Jean, in a sense, gives birth to the second part of the novel - mirror image to the first. She returns to Canada, separates from Avery and falls in love with Lucjan, a Polish guerrilla painter. At night, in bed, she listens to him talk of the destruction and rebuilding of Warsaw (its reconstructed face offering a false solace comparable to that of Egypt's new villages). The unspoken question - has she lost Avery for good? - will not be answered until the very end.
Michaels's prose has a hit-and-miss lyricism precariously situated between the pretentious and the profound. She loves language - almost to a fault. She is a word-taster, she relishes unexpected juxtapositions. The book is stuffed - overstuffed - with inventories. But I enjoyed her questing intelligence and, in particular, her sensitivity to buildings and her idea that they are, somehow, complicit in what happens to the people who occupy them.
And yet the intensity of the novel is relentless. Its aphoristic melancholy is rescued only by a wan wit that occasionally firms up into a joke
(I liked Avery's unexpected line to his new lover: "If we're getting into bed, then we'd better get dressed").
There is something of the parable, too, about this writing, but I am not sure what to learn. I kept finding myself uncertainly questioning statements and images, holding them up to the light. Is truth really like "a water bird that dives in one part of the lake and pops up in another"? And what about this? "'Our shoelaces have to come undone,' said Avery, 'before we ever think to kneel'." But at its best, Michaels's writing does succeed as a form of reclamation, even while she acknowledges that the past can never be completely restored to us.