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Lyrical Odyssey

Poet and novelist Anne Michaels puts together good words.

Book Cover Canadian poet and occasional novelist Anne Michaels, whose first novel, Fugitive Pieces, was internationally lauded and awarded, returns some 12 years later with a sophomore effort every bit as engaging. The Winter Vault (Knopf) is brimming with gorgeous prose and imagery—frequently cited as an example of, uh, “lyric fiction” (think Michael Ondaatje, John Berger, Nadeem Aslam)—with lyricism such as the novel’s first sentence, “Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, long before we painted on stone.” If I were not duty bound to render some explicable notice of Michaels’s fine new novel, I would be tempted to utter the banality, “words cannot express…” or even the Wittgensteinian formulation, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

The story places two recently married Canadians, Avery and Jean, on the Nile River at a preservation project for the immense statuary and temple of Ramses at Abu Simbel (the time is circa 1964, during the construction of the Aswan Dam). Avery is an engineer, employed by this massive and intricate enterprise, and Jean is a botanist; they met while watching the seaway construction of the St. Lawrence river, grasping the irreversible impact on the lives and communities of that area. Now viewing the same process in Egypt, their idyll (living on a houseboat on the Nile) is interrupted by a tragedy that rends their marriage and sends them back to Toronto. There, Avery studies architecture and Jean takes up with a Polish émigré—whose stories of embattled Warsaw provide a distinctive dissonance against the world views of Avery and Jean.

Michaels’s narrative is a poignant and vivid illumination of the inevitability of time’s change. Or something like that.
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