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Staff Picks – Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

In Winter Vault by Anne Michaels, engineer Avery Escher and his young wife Jean begin the story on a houseboat on the Nile in the 1960’s. Avery is involved in the building of the Aswan Dam. His project is the relocation of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel. Jean is a botanist who collects and preserves seeds and flowers. Tragically, Jean delivers a stillborn daughter. This once intimate couple are unable to comfort one another and part ways. Both return to Canada where Avery takes up architecture. Jean continues her botanical studies and meets Lucjean, an artist and a Warsaw ghetto survivor.

This is an intensely profound story of loss, sadness and consolation. The losses are personal, a parent, a child; the losses are on a larger scale, a community, genocide. Michaels, with the care of a poet, chooses words to make this sadness palpable; the words are never maudlin or sentimental. From this despair we also see growth and rebuilding. Jean rescues seeds from dismantled gardens and uses them to reawaken scents and memories. Avery, once concerned with the mathematics of dismantling an ancient temple, turns to architecture and rebuilding.
If you also enjoyed, or are waiting for The Winter Vault, you might also consider The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. To commemorate the loss of 22 friends and neighbours, a cellist plays at the site of a mortar attack, one day for each death. Much of Avery’s and Jean’s story in The Winter Vault is told through memories. February by Lisa Moore also relies on the memories of Helen O’Mara as she reflects on the loss of her husband in the Ocean Ranger Disaster. In Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen by Kate Taylor, literature and cooking are the remedy for heartbreak and profound loss.

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