Ian McEwan was once asked if a paragraph in one of his novels, which describes a neurosurgeon performing an operation, was really about writing. It was.
“The dream . . . that we all have,” McEwan said, “is to write this beautiful paragraph that is actually describing something but at the same time, in another voice, is writing a commentary on its own creation, without having to be a story about a writer.” There is a passage in Anne Michaels’ new novel, the belated follow-up to her astonishingly successful 1997 debut, Fugitive Pieces, that achieves a comparable self-reflexive effect.
Avery Escher, a civil engineer, is telling his wife Jean that when he looks at a building, it’s as if he is able to discern in it the “mind” of the architect. He describes the way the contours of a man’s mind seem to him to be disclosed in a thousand tiny details – the positioning of a door, say, or the height of a window. “Sometimes it seems as if the architect had full knowledge of these details in his design . . . as if [he] had anticipated every minute effect of weather, and of weather on memory, every combination of atmosphere, wind, and temperature . . .”
Similar thoughts come to mind when reading The Winter Vault. Although the prose in the novel has the same quality of crystalline exactness that reviewers of Fugitive Pieces fell over themselves to call “poetic”, the book’s most striking feature is, in fact, its architecture or design – the “mind” of its author can be discerned in its carefully orchestrated resonances, its stealthy anticipations and prolepses.
Michaels said in a recent interview that fiction is “expansive: it offers a way of layering things”, and The Winter Vault is certainly a miracle of layering or patterning.
Which is not to say, however, that the novel’s effects are merely cumulative. On the contrary, it is full of arresting incidental detail and imagery.
In one especially memorable scene, Avery and Jean are walking along the banks of the St Lawrence River in Canada, on land that has been inundated by the navigation of the St Lawrence Seaway and now lies partially under water. Jean feels a “cold shape” brush against her leg. It is a dead mole, one of hundreds that drowned when their tunnels were swamped. The corpse is a relic of lost terrain.
Taking the vicissitudes of Jean and Amery’s marriage as her guiding thread, Michaels knits together the story of the St Lawrence Seaway, and the villages and habitats it claims (entire houses standing in the way of the navigation are uprooted and relocated by a gargantuan machine called the “Hartshorne House Mover”), with accounts of the reconstruction of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt, necessitated by the building of the Aswan Dam, and the sacking of Warsaw in the Second World War and the subsequent construction of a replica or facsimile of the city’s old centre.
The novel opens in 1964, in the Nubian Desert in southern Egypt. Avery is surveying a scene of “ghastly devastation” that will be echoed in the remains of lost villages along the St Lawrence revealed by the autumnal “shallows” and later in the ruins of Warsaw.
The body parts “strewn at hideous angles” at Avery’s feet belong to the statue of Ramses that adorns the Great Temple. It’s his job to dismantle the temple and reconstruct it at a safe distance from the waters of the redirected Nile.
Avery is tormented by the thought that successful completion of the project would involve a kind of betrayal – the perfection of an “illusion”.
This theme is reiterated throughout the novel: first, in a flashback where a woman is so unnerved by having her house deposited miles from where it once stood that she drops a cherished family heirloom that had survived transportation on the Hartshorne House Mover; and much later, when the Polish artist who will become Jean’s lover remembers the excitement of the inhabitants of Warsaw at the rebuilding of the Old Town. “Who is to say,” he asks, “that the rebuilt city was worth less than the original?”
For Jean, who remembers Avery’s torment by the Nile, the rebuilding is a “false consolation”, a substitute for proper commemoration of what was lost when the Nazis flattened the Polish capital.
Jean’s scepticism makes her the novel’s moral centre, the repository of an unsparing, unconsoled vision of grief and loss. She is a veteran of abandonment: by the time she meets Avery both her parents are dead. “My life,” she tells Avery’s mother later, “[is] formed around an absence.”
The same might be said of the novel itself. It is formed around multiple disappearances – of the villages of Nubia claimed by the “strangled” Nile, of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto and of Jean and Amery’s daughter, who is stillborn in a Cairo hospital.
At one point, Avery, who wants to be an architect not an engineer, dreams of making buildings that are “frank and spare, without irony; capable simply of both sorrow and solace”. His creator has written a remarkable book with exactly those qualities.
Jonathan Derbyshire is the New Statesman’s culture editor
The Winter Vault
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £16.99