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Originally published Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Winter Vault:" a poet's novel of marriage

"The Winter Vault" by Canadian poet Anne Michaels is the story of a husband and wife who, despite separating, cannot quite live without each other.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Winter Vault"

by Anne Michaels

Knopf, 352 pp., $25

Canadian writer Anne Michaels' lyrical second novel "The Winter Vault," coming more than a decade after her acclaimed debut "Fugitive Pieces," is a story both epic and tiny. Jean and Avery are a young couple in 1964, living next to the Nile River while Avery works on the restoration and reconstruction of an ancient temple. Very much in love and far from their beginnings in Ontario, they revel in the culture of their new world and share stories of their separate pasts, knitting themselves together with words.

When tragedy strikes, the two return home to separate lives: Jean to a new relationship with a gentle man haunted by his memories of wartime Poland, and Avery to the study of architecture, hoping to create something lasting. But they cannot quite rip their marriage apart; part of each, it seems, permanently resides in the other.

"The Winter Vault" is clearly the work of a poet (Michaels has published three volumes of poetry); every page quietly sparkles with metaphors that are often startlingly beautiful. Pale Jean lies entwined in the arms of her darker-tanned lover "like snow upon a branch"; an ancient cemetery contains "fallen gravestones with names now melted, only an undecipherable indentation ... like the line a finger makes in sand."

But this verbal beauty contributes to a certain remoteness in the storytelling; the narrative seems to float, anchored by little that's concrete. Jean and Avery are both ethereal and a little bland, rarely breathing. It's not that Michaels can't create vivid characters — Avery's mother, Marina, jumps off the page — but that the book is about the ideas these people inspire and express, rather than the characters themselves.

Though "The Winter Vault" at times makes for flat reading, I'll forgive much in a writer whose pages are at times a treasure hunt. In passing, Avery remembers his mother's crisp wisdom. "Grief bakes in us," she says, "it bakes until one day the blade pushes in and comes out clean."

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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