15 February 2012

The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels

I will not go so far as to say I hated this book. I can, in fact, imagine a reader who would love it. In fact, I know one such reader; the friend who recommended the book to me, and she is a great person with excellent taste in literature. Reading this novel, I could kind of understand what she loved about it. In some ways, it is distinctly reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje's style (maybe it's a Canadians writing about Africa kind of thing). Parts of it are quite beautiful, prose wise. There is definitely a certain poignancy in the evocations of villages destroyed by water projects. But here already, the book began to set my teeth on edge. I am quite wary of novels that wax lyrical about devastating events. It can be done well, but if it's not, it feels like a rather disgusting aestheticization of suffering. This novel didn't quite go that far, but it definitely toed the line. Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to it because in the second portion, this extends to descriptions of Poland during the Second World War, and I'm more likely to be hypercritical of someone writing fiction about it when they didn't personally experience it.

 But the real problem with the book, for me, was that the story and characters were utterly unconvincing. I simply cannot believe that these people exist, or that if they did, they would behave the way they did. It just made no sense. Their emotional lives were rather iceberg-like in that they rarely communicated with each other and were generally opaque, even to the narrator, but we were clearly meant to believe that they had rich inner worlds of some sort. Avery, the male lead, makes some amount of sense, but Jean, his wife, is a total black box, and not an especially appealing one.

This is one of those books that I am tempted to pass on to someone else, because I do think other people will probably like it a lot, but I feel really weird about doing so, given how much I disliked it. "Here! Read this! I didn't like it, but I'll bet you will!"

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