A novel to write home about

ANNE MICHAELS is fascinated by emigration. Daughter of a Polish father and Canadian mother, she was born in Toronto in 1958, and lives there still. But she has become increasingly aware that few of her generation live in the place where they were born.

“I am very conscious of that,” she says, as we chat for a few hours before her reading at The Dublin Writer’s Festival.

“I think that affects the core of us. Do you belong to the place where you were born, or the place where you are buried? Or do you belong to the place where your children were born? There has been this profound change, and it’s one I don’t think we quite acknowledge,” she says.

This, she says, is particularly true in Canada.

“I am very conscious that everyone around me moved there either before the Second World War, or after it, or because of it. You walk to the corner store for a litre of milk, and the man behind the counter is reading Gustav Faust in Korean.”

Michaels’s first novel, Fugitive Pieces, depicted a Polish orphan who was rescued from Nazi occupation and smuggled to Greece. Her new one, The Winter Vault, has a section remembering the decimation of Warsaw. Set in 1964, in Canada and Egypt, the novel follows Avery and Jean through the early years of their marriage.

An engineer, Avery is rescuing the great temple at Abu Simbel, as the waters of the Aswun Dam rise; an event that will cause the destruction of villages, just as the St Lawrence Seaway had back in Canada.

“I was thinking about dispossession and of rebuilding, and also of commemoration. There have been so many attempts to commemorate the story of events in cities destroyed by bombs or by natural disasters.”

“Some places leave the ruins and build nearby, and, in other places, they build a new city. In Warsaw, they decided to replicate the city and make an exact copy, but nothing brings back the past or the dead. It is heartbreaking,” Michaels says.

The novel opens as the original temple is being dismantled. It’s a scene of devastation. Nearby, on their houseboat on the Nile, Avery is painting landscapes onto his new wife’s back. Sometimes he paints the scene before him; sometimes, by memory, the Chiltern Hills. It’s an arresting image.

“That,” says Michaels, “was the first image to come to me. It encompasses almost the whole book for me. There was the tenderness of their relationship, and the privacy of that relationship within each of them; and the holiness of the temple being dissipated as it was taken apart.”

The novel is full of such images. The 250 lyrically written pages are packed with history; and with information on engineering and botany. Michaels loves research, because she is interested in everything. Her real strength, though, is in the abstract; in ideas, in humanity, and in feelings. She describes Turin as being “drenched in grief.”

Jean has lost her mother, then her father, so when her baby dies before birth it is heartrending.

“It was very hard to write those passages,” says Michaels. “It’s hard, I think, for any writer to have something very difficult happen to their characters. But I think that where she is emerging, at the end of the book, there is a very real hope.”

“There is a sentence that sums it all up for me,” she says.

“It’s when Avery and Jean see that plastic garden in the graveyard. It says, ‘everything that isn’t made from love is a lie.’ I don’t think Jean would be quite able to understand that at the beginning of the book.”

Passionate about writing, Michaels wrote three, prize-winning volumes of poetry before penning the novel that garnered praise, prizes and massive sales. But she hasn’t written any for a while.

“I always give the answer that I hope I will write more when I am wise enough to do so.”

There’s an intensity about Michaels. She seems as careful in speech as she is in print; dissecting every thought with absolute concentration.

“When I start a book, I never know if I am going to end up in a place of greater or lesser despair. I have a need to find answers to those questions that are, perhaps, unanswerable, and to express the inexpressible very precisely.”

And since she became a mother, to daughters of ten and six, this need in her has become even greater.

Michaels refuses to smile for the photographer, explaining that her work is serious, and so must she be. You’d imagine she hates the media circus, but she says she adores meeting readers.

“I always feel there is a privilege that you can hold a reader close for 200 or 300 pages. It is an incredible honour to meet people who have read the book. I really want people to trust me with this new book and to know that I have gone into this subject, and these questions, as deeply as I possibly can.”

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