Review: The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

My Quick Take: A beautifully written, deeply-felt novel of love, loss, and the perils of reconstruction, full of interesting history.


I read this with our Canuck Reads Canadian Literature book club, and we discussed the book for over an hour! There are no big spoilers here but some discussion of the book's plot points.

Anne Michaels is a poet, and that fact is apparent in The Winter Vault, with it's gorgeous prose. It is the story of Avery and Jean in the 1950s and 60s, a young married couple who first witness the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, then travels to Egypt, where architect Avery will work on moving the great Abu Simbel to make way for the Aswan Dam.

This was a novel of consequences. Avery builds dams, an ostensibly noble pursuit, but both he and Jean begin to understand that there is an unfair and sorrowful price that many must pay. It not only displaces the people aside the river, it also takes its toll on those who are the builders responsible for the dam and the displacement of Abu Simbel.

Michaels writes about the attempt to reconstruct things exactly, a metaphor for holding on to the past tightly and resisting change. It is not a resolution, it’s just postponing the consequences, I think she’s saying. Avery tries to tell an old woman in a town along the St. Lawrence that she must move to the new, reconstructed town. She objects, telling him that her husband’s grave is in the town.
“But they can move your husband’s body, said Avery. The company will pay the expenses.

…Can you move what was consecrated? Can you move the exact empty place in the earth I was to lie next to him for eternity? It’s the loneliness of eternity that I am talking about! Can you move all those things?”
One character, a survivor of WWII in Poland, describes the reconstruction of Warsaw, how an exact replication had disquieting consequences:
“The old streets–every doorway and streetlamp and stoop–was familiar, yet not quite; somehow almost more real than we remembered. Then there were things we didn’t remember at all, and we felt some piece of our brains had been knocked out. Everyone wandered the streets the same way, vaguely afraid, as if the dead father or mother, the dead wife or sister might suddenly jump out from behind a doorway.”
Michaels' prose is skilled. It feels as if she constructed each sentence and scene precisely to evoke not only an idea, but also an emotion. There was a pages-long eulogy for a Nubian town along the Nile that would be flooded the next day, Ashkeit. It was lovely and sad. I was in a melancholy mood that day, and reading it resonated with me strongly. The prose was exquisitely beautiful in its sorrow. It was a perfect example of how the right writing at the right time can amplify our own emotions and move us in profound ways.
“When the water came, the houses would dissolve like a bromide. But they would not even disappear into the river, which held a memory of them. For even the river would be gone.”
The second half of the book happens after tragedy visits Jean and Avery. Instead of grieving as a couple, they cannot find solace in each other, and each must find their way to move ahead, though the narrative focused more on Jean than Avery at this point. I found this part of the story to be less engaging, though still skillfully written. I got the sense that Michaels was showing that the two could not possibly move forward in the same way that they had been a couple before; replication was not an option, because it would be a lie.

After finishing the book, I re-read the first few pages. Avery speaks of Abu Simbel, and its meticulous destruction and reconstruction, piece by painstaking piece, to its new site.
“And although the angle of sunrise into the Great Temple would be the same and the same sun would enter the sanctuary at dawn, Avery knew that once the last temple stone had been cut and hoisted sixty metres higher, each block replaced, each seam filled with sand so there was not a grain of space between the blocks to reveal where they’d been sliced, each kingly visage slotted into place, that the perfection of the illusion–the perfection itself–would be the betrayal.”
Nothing is untouched by change, and no decision is without consequence. There are often no right answers. Choosing to build dams has consequences, both to the builder and the displaced. By committing to love, to have a child, or to value a place, one is inherently at risk of loss. It is important that we consider our choices well, because the choices we make will change us. It is important that we don’t cling too hard to the past and get stuck in attempts to constantly replicate it. It is in forging something new that grief, loss, and our choices will transform us.


Reading The Winter Vault brought back memories of my own. I travelled to Egypt in 1996 with my partner and another couple. We were young, in our 20s, and on a strict budget, often staying in super cheap accommodations and walking long distances across city streets in Cairo and Alexandria. It was an amazing time, but also a physically and culturally difficult trip. We took an overnight train to Abu Simbel to visit the reconstructed historical site along the banks of Lake Nasser, which had been created by the Aswan Dam. I remember being awed by the facade of the temple, and taken by the beauty of the reservoir lake. I probably knew the facts of the construction at the time. I likely pulled out my Fodor’s guide (in the before-times, when there were no smartphones) and read about it. I’m sure that I didn’t feel the scale of the sacrifice of those people who had lived for generations aside the Nile tending farms, date trees and livestock. I’m not sure I even knew, or took the time to know. I’m glad that I’m thinking about it again now. I pulled my old photo album from my bookshelf, and took a while to thumb through the pages, remembering my 25 year old trip. Good times. Here are a couple of pages from our visit to Abu Simbel.


  1. Excellent review! And awesome pictures from your travels!

    1. Thanks so much for reading! I'd love to visit again some day.


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