Anne Michaels‘ “The Winter Vault” meditates on loss and grief for places and the people who live there. The novel opens with Canadian engineer Avery Esher and his wife, Jean, living on the Nile while Avery works on the removal of the Abu Simbel temples from ground soon to be inundated by the waters of the Aswan dam. Each block has to be precisely sawn, numbered, hauled away and replaced exactly as it was in the original site. But will the ancient stone withstand the shock? Might it crumble into dust? No one knows. In any case, does the dam justify the removal of the temples and of the Nubians whose lands will also disappear? Their agriculture and way of life depends on inhabiting those lands. Transporting them to new villages of concrete houses means transporting them to an alien lifestyle.
Avery is a talented engineer with extraordinary sensitivity to buildings and landscapes. The tale of his involvement in the Aswan dam segues into the story of himself and his father, also an engineer, working on the St. Lawrence Seaway that straightened the river for the benefit of international shipping but at the cost of drowning dozens of Canadian towns. The cost-benefits analyses that justified the Seaway and the Aswan dam didn’t — couldn’t — take into account their impact on the lives of the thousands of people they displaced. We can imagine the effect on people by thinking about what it would be like to have our homes and work and everything we know disappear as water floods the land. But what does it mean for the place that has been destroyed?
Jean and Avery ponder this with foreboding. As the work on the temples and the relocation of the Nubians goes on, Jean awaits their first child with a longing deepened by her memories of her mother’s death when she was a little girl. Her mother had loved her garden and Jean devotedly tends her plants. When she goes to study botany at university, she uproots them all and keeps them in jars and planters until she can replant them. Her grief for her mother feeds into her grief for what is happening on the Nile. Yet the coming baby promises a new beginning. When it dies in the womb, Jean returns to Canada, unable to connect with anyone until she meets a Polish artist, Lucjan.
Lucjan’s life has been shaped by the Luftwaffe’s destruction of Warsaw at the end of World War II. The orphaned Lucjan kept himself alive by searching in the rubble for food, trading things he found, watching people return and begin building with whatever came to hand. Single-mindedly the Poles bent all energies on rebuilding of the Old City — their Stary Grad. Every piece of molding, every bit of carving or scrap of woodwork or textile that survived was preserved so it could be reused and facsimiles could be made to recreate the medieval city exactly as it had been. Or was it? Can even the most faithful reproduction be the same as the original?
Now that the Abu Simbel temples stand above the waters that wash the place where they stood for millennia, do they retain their integrity? Like Warsaw’s Old Town, they can only ever be similar — never the same.
Anne Michaels ponders the implications of destruction and rebuilding, suggesting the vitality of place and its utter centrality to its inhabitants. As Jean thinks about the human ingenuity that turns a place to a new use — land to water, a city to rubble — she feels awe and fear and a deep, deep sense of loss as she contemplates the impacts on lives: her own life and Avery’s and Lucjan’s among so many more. She recovers slowly, and only through faith in the power of creation as she involves herself in the art of Lucjan and other Polish emigres, and as ever, through plants and flowers. Lucjan tells Jean that the first shops to reopen in the ruins of Warsaw were florists. She realizes that the first garden must have been a grave — an apercu that suggests life ever springing from destruction.
Ms. Michaels amplifies the shock of the dramatic stories of Abu Simbel, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the destruction of Warsaw with her extraordinarily detailed accounts of them. She is as much at ease describing the engineering problems of moving the temples and redirecting the St. Lawrence as she is with the minutiae of daily life in Warsaw in the aftermath of the bombing. She uses this detailed information as an infrastructure on which to build a philosophical analysis of the meaning of these events, moving always from the smallest details to the vast canvas they help compose. This method creates the powerful frame of the novel, enabling her to reinforce her themes through the three central events and the story of Jean’s, Avery’s and Lucjan’s reactions to them.
Ms. Michael’s way of piling details and perceptions often has poetic effect, but they sometimes they read like a catalog or thesaurus. More unfortunately, ruminations and perceptions have to be located in a consciousness, usually Jean’s. Perhaps surprisingly, this makes her harder to appreciate as a character. She is in focus as a serious and bereaved child, but as an adult she is hazier; her consciousness merges into that of the other characters — all of whom are sensitive, knowledgeable and thoughtful. An exception is Lucjan, who is edgier, sharper, a credible product of and refugee from World War II Poland. Nonetheless, “The Winter Vault” is serious and interesting reading, a book to take slowly and ponderingly.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.