Secular story, religious themes

Published April 2, 2014

(This book review was first published in the April 2014 issue of the Anglican Journal.)

By Anne Michaels
McClelland & Stewart, 2009
ISBN 9780771058905
352 pages

It takes time for the “winter vault” to appear in Anne Michaels’ novel (over 240 pages in), but it is an apt title for this beautifully crafted story of dispossession and adaptation, of loss and hard-won hope, of the creative capacity of story to open the way to reconciliation and the power of love to realize redemption.

If you were raised some years ago in a small town or in the countryside, as I was, you will know what a winter vault is. Before the days of mechanical diggers and ground thawers, there were no burials once the ground froze. The coffins of those who died during winter were placed in a stone mausoleum, awaiting spring burial-a winter vault. It was unfinished business, grief prolonged.

This story begins 50 years ago on the Nile, where a young Avery, joined by his wife, Jean, works as an engineer on the relocation of Pharaoh Ramses’ magnificent tomb, about to be swallowed in the waters rising behind the new Aswan Dam. He had met his botanist wife in a small Ontario village while he was working on its relocation, as the construction of the new St. Lawrence Seaway buried old communities under a moved river. These miracles of modern engineering also brought systematic destruction and “counterfeit reconstruction” to make it look as if everything was the same-it wouldn’t be. The impact on people’s lives of these still amazing feats of human construction has destructive consequences. There is collateral damage: ecological, social, political, personal.

Michaels’ writing is eloquent. Not surprisingly, she is an award-winning poet, and her liquid prose resonates with the lyrical word play of poetry. This is not a book that all will like. Like poetry, the precision of the language evokes meaning rather than defining action, suggestively connecting ideas, people and events that previously seemed separate, leaving the reader to interpret nuances and emotions. It is not a simple book. It is one to be read reflectively, savouring the images, delighting in the descriptive phrases and pondering their wisdom. Those wanting a fast-paced narrative or rollicking adventure will need to look elsewhere.

When we read a beautifully written novel, it reverberates in the contexts of our lives: the environmental dislocation, the loss of ancestral lands and cultural roots, the corrosive effects of grief and distance in relationships, the tentative possibilities of reconciliation at the place of deepest pain. In the end, new life is found at a tomb.

We are in the season of Easter, where the waters of baptism create a new identity, where betrayal and loss are reconciled and healed, where the tomb-the winter vault-leads not to final burial but to resurrection.
Water, location, identity, death, resurrection…The Winter Vault, a book about hope, invites us to consider these essentially religious themes in an outwardly secular story.

ARCHBISHOP COLIN JOHNSON is the archbishop of the diocese of Toronto and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario.


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