Monday, November 9, 2009

Out of the writer's vault

No, I haven't disappeared in cyberspace. I just went MIA (Missing In Action), busy, busy, busy writing my own book instead of writing about other people's books.

Not that I stopped reading while writing – I only stop reading to breathe and sleep – I simply took a short break from writing about reading.

Now I’m BIA (Back in Action), trying to recall the reading delights of the past few weeks. The novel that stands out in my memory, is Anne Michaels’s latest, The Winter Vault. Like many other readers, I was absolutely enchanted by her previous novel, Fugitive Pieces. This 1997 Orange Prize winner - praised by the great John Berger as ‘the most important book I have read for forty years’- tells the story of a Greek geologist (Athos) and a small Polish boy (Jakob) whose lives are transformed by the Second World War. The writing was described as ‘incandescent’ and the language as ‘electric with life’.

A hard act to follow, indeed. Besides, it is always a bit of a gamble to read a second book by an author whose first book you adored. Your expectations are so high that some form of disappointment is almost inevitable. So let me get this off my chest: The Winter Vault is an excellent book – but it didn’t thrill and exhiliarate me as Fugitive Pieces had.

Anne Michaels is a poetic, lyrical novelist, if ever there was one, a superb stylist whose language delights the ear, the eye and the heart on every page. I have to admit, though, that in this latest novel the dialogue sometimes sounded a little too stylised to me. The way her characters speak – all those lovely, long, often lyrical monologues – was simply not realistic enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief that I find vital to the enjoyment of fiction. I kept thinking, no, surely people don’t talk this way? Do they?

Still, the novel offers more than enough reading pleasure, with a narrative spanning three continents and many decades, as well as quite a few memorable characters who are all displaced, lost and searching in different ways. Michaels has a particular talent for illustrating how huge historical events shape small human lives. This time water, rather than war, causes most of the havoc. The displacement of people caused by the construction of gigantic dams, in Egypt and North America, is the thread running throughout this fictional tapestry.

If this sounds more like engineering or social history than story-telling, well, the author has evidently done an enormous amount of research, but she never loses touch with her characters, their emotions and their experiences. The Winter Vault stays a story - and therein lies its glory.

Pity about the dialogue, though.