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lundi 29 décembre 2008

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

Please note: forthcoming March 2009!

This novel, which I found fascinating and beautifully written, is a three pronged lament for the tragedy caused by human arrogance. The story has three principal actors, three major destructions are evoked in three different parts of the world, more or less playing at the same time in history.  It is a twentieth century tale. The sub context is about love and redemption.  It is also about the power of family and of memory.  Memory is evoked by conversation and intimacy.  

I was going to start by telling you about Avery, Jean and Lucjan, to tell you who they are and from where they came, but I think it is better to begin with the places of destruction and you will be able to use your imagination for the plot without having it all given away by me.  We begin in Egypt with the barrage that was put into action by Nasser’s giant Aswan High Dam built in the 1960’s. This enormous hydro-electric power plant made a gap so deep and long, the land would never recover. “Nubia in its entirety – one hundred and twenty thousand villagers, their homes, land, and meticulously tended ancient groves and many hundreds of archeological sites – vanished.”  Nasser built the monument to himself just as Ramses had his likeness sculpted at Abu Simbel to himself. “Lake Nasser would melt away this holy ground.”  (300 kilometers worth of lake).

Avery, an english engineer and his canadian wife Jean are sent to Egypt so that he can supervise the immense project to save Abu Simbel from the rising waters.

This is the central plot. The love of this couple for one another, their attempt to live a life under grim conditions whilst he is engaged with all his skills to organize the move by hundreds of workers and machines, of that monument, block by block to a higher land. Avery has doubts all along concerning the worth of what will be in fact a fake monument, a reconstituted monument, a false witness of time. Jean becomes pregnant and carries the future within her. “What was lost was more than what was gained, said Jean.”

There is another destruction recounted by the third person, Lucjan, a polish Jew who not only witnessed the destruction of Warsaw but also took part in rebuilding it afterwards.  A fake old town is brought to life. A cheat. Can one bring a city back to life? Does it bring atonement? How is this related to the salvaging of Abu Simbel?

I find it difficult to end my review.  I have not told the story.  I have given you a mise en scène, a theme.  I have not told you about the beautifully crafted and carefully stitched family quilt of the memories of two people who seem to fit together like two pieces of a wooden jig saw puzzle: every joint, every limb, a smooth fit. I have skipped over the Saint Lawrence hydro-electric power plant and the destruction wrought by that project.  I have left out a great deal but I hope this little bit that I have written down will induce you to read a, yes I dare write a perhaps over-used word, a heartbreaking story.

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