In Anne Michaels’s The Winter Vault, Avery Escher is an engineer contracted to work on the damming of the St. Lawrence Seaway in Ontario, Canada. Constructing the dam will flood several villages, displacing the living and the dead. Avery meets Jean Shaw, a botanist by hobby, as she frantically and resentfully collects samples of plants and seeds from along the river that will soon be swallowed up by the rushing waters, never to flourish again in their native soil. The dam is completed and “the detonation of silence” fills the area: “Even the leaves on the trees were mute; so absolute the stillness, all sound seemed to have been drawn from the world. ”
The newly developed towns adjust to their new lives. The inhabitants of the surrounding areas “simply could not bring themselves to enter the water where so many and so much had vanished, as if they, too, might never return. ” Jean is among those forever changed by the destruction and reconstruction of the town and its inhabitants.
Despite Avery’s role in the project, the two begin an intimate relationship through conversations that spill into the early morning. Jean shares memories of growing up alone with her father after her mother’s death, reliving the kind of common revelation that, at thirteen, fills one with an aching wonder and sorrow, an excitement and a disorientation, and the beginning of the very slow realization that one’s ignorance continues to grow at precisely the same rate as one’s experience.
Her mother’s love of gardening, which inspired Jean’s interest in botany, also is a common topic of her discussions with Avery. She explains to him that gardening offered a means of communication with her mother through the planting and nurturing of new seeds. Her mother, Jean recounts, “. . . had left a small garden that I kept tendingfor heras if one day she would come back and we would sit there together and I would show her how well her lilies had grown, show her all the new plants I’d added.suddenly I felt I could keep on loving her, that I could keep telling her things this way.”
Avery in turn shares with Jean the story of his parents’ first meeting and of his childhood in war-torn Europe. He spends many nights recounting the years he spent with his mother, aunt, and cousins in England while his father and uncle were at war. These extremely personal late-night conversations serve both as therapy for the two characters and as the foundation for their relationship. During the early stage in their relationship, Avery introduces Jean to Marina, his mother. The two women form a close bond over their interest in plants, their love of life, and a shared deep understanding of loss. Marina connects with Jean by saying “It’s like a spellnothing eats away time like the past.” Jean in turn remarks, “The living haunt us in ways the dead cannot.”
Avery receives a job offer that forever alters the course of the characters’ lives. Having the opportunity to travel to Egypt to work on the Aswam Dam and help relocate the temple of Abu Simbel, Avery asks Jean to join him on his journey. He tells her, “Your thumb is the Atlantic, your smallest finger, the Pacific. Your fingertips are Egypt, and the heel of your hand is Africayour heart line is the Arabian desert, your fate line is the river Nile. . . .” Jean agrees, and she and Avery are married by a justice of the peace.
The newlyweds travel across the world, to once again engage in a project that will flood a region and devastate a population. Jean, alone in a foreign land, sets to work gathering specimens and realizes how distinctive is the material forming each unique part of the earth: The silt, like the river water, also had its own unique intimacies, a chemical wisdom that had been defining itself for millennia. To Jean, the Nile silt was like flesh, it held not only a history but a heredity. Like a species, it would never again be known on this earth.
At the same time, Avery, whose love for mechanics and machinery has been passed down to him from his father, stands on the brink of undergoing a monumental task that has become “familiar to him now, this feeling at the beginning, which he conscientiously registered as containing an element of self-pity; the first signs of a slow, coagulating grief.”
The concept of loss, the very term “lost,” haunts Avery. This was a term for which Avery had once felt contempt but now...
(The entire section is 1825 words.)