“The Winter Vault,” by Anne Michaels

That Anne Michaels’s second novel, The Winter Vault, is a work of enormous and earnest intensity is indisputable. It is painstakingly researched, minutely detailed in the particularities of a vast number of arcane topics (bookbinding, cabinetry, early children’s book illustration) and ambitious in scope. Perhaps this is the reason that it does not succeed as a novel but reads more like a series of passionate essays on the problem of lost lives, people and places as they are played out in various displaced worlds of the late unlamented 20th century.

The novel is preoccupied with landscapes of erosion, loss and salvaging, and Michaels works hard to connect the three great sites of destruction in and around which her novel takes place. These are the desert lands condemned to flooding by the construction of Egypt’s Aswan Dam in the ’60s, the displacement of Ontario towns and farmlands a decade earlier through the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and finally the reconstruction of the city of Warsaw after it had been decimated by Hitler’s army. In this way her novel “flows” backwards, decade by decade, ostensibly connecting each site of loss or salvage with its predecessor in another time and continent. The idea is an elegant one but it doesn’t work; for despite the ubiquity of river imagery, the novel is static and encumbered by the moral ideas and philosophical precepts through which her characters struggle on their way to work out their various scattered salvations …

The Winter Vault, Anne Michaels, McClelland & Stewart, 2009, hardcover, 352 pp, $32.99.