(Reviewed by Poornima Apte OCT 7, 2007)
Michael Redhill’s Booker-nominated (longlist) Consolation is a tale of two Torontos: the modern-day city and the freshly minted one of the 1850s.
Professor David Hollis, by turns anthropologist and historian, ardently believes in the existence of a set of old photographs of Toronto. He is convinced they exist and that they drowned on board a ship hundreds of years ago. If Hollis’ calculations are to be believed, the city of Toronto is actually sitting on the treasure. Hollis’ debilitating Lou Gehrig’s disease and ridicule from colleagues who point to a lack of believable evidence for his theory, lead to his committing suicide.
Tracing back to 1850, Redhill sketches the life of Jem Hallam as a separate thread--a young married man with two children, sent to Canadian shores by his apothecarist father to expand the family business to the New World. Although the apothecary business flounders, Hallam is introduced to the joys of photography by an opium-addicted fellow resident, Sam Ennis. Hallam soon gives up his business and takes up photography, accompanied in his business venture by Ennis and a young widow, Claudia Rowe. Redhill tantalizingly points out that Hallam and Rowe do indeed take a complete set of photographs of the old Toronto carefully preserving the photographic plates between layers of muslin.
Meanwhile, back to the present, Hollis’ widow, Marianne, who while he lived, never had much time to give much thought to Hollis’ work, now sets about trying to establish the verity of his claims. She moves to a downtown hotel and sets up a vigil over a construction site nearby. Marianne’s soon-to-be son-in-law John Lewis, also helps her even if he is the target of her razor-sharp tongue. Daughter Bridget, who is convinced her mother is crazy, and who until late, does not know her fiancé is aiding and abetting Mom, also tries to make sense of her father’s passing in her own way. At the construction site, as luck would have it, the workers strike gold and unearth what looks to be a ship.
The questions the book digs up only leads to more: is this the same ship that could hold the pictures, was Hallam’s story even real or was it made up by Lewis as a way to console his soon-to-be family? Had Hollis really made the whole thing up? Consolation frustratingly, hints at all these conflicting possibilities.
Redhill does a great job of portraying Toronto--especially of the city’s harsh winters endured by its early immigrants. The similarity between the 19th century Hallam and modern-day David Hollis are subtle but noticeable upon careful inspection. Each is worried about his legacy and the markers he will leave behind. Each chases down his goals doggedly until at least in the case of Hollis, fate halts all progress. As Consolation shows, the neat thing about history is the discovery that people across the times deal with life’s vicissitudes in quite a similar fashion. For every age and every generation, there are men like Hallam and Hollis worrying about how history will view their place on earth and equally there are others who in Hollis’ words: just don’t give a shit.
Redhill’s novel is an interesting if meandering meditation on the precise intersection of time and place. One wonders exactly how differently Hallam’s and Hollis’ lives would have played out had they lived anywhere else. In that sense, Consolation is as much a tale of the two men as it is of the two vastly different Torontos.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Consolation at Hachette Books(back to top)
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JAN 29, 2003)
"He would lie in my bed on the last nights of his visits (he came twice a month for long weekends by the beginning of my senior year) and tell me he wished we already had years of shared life behind us. He longed for a common past. So someone else has a copy of it, he said.
An emotional archive with me as curator.
And me as yours.
I like that, I said. And we continued to learn the other like explorers expanding their maps of the known world. I didn't know, at that age, that those kind of maps have no north, no true north."I can't recall a recent book in which so many professional reviewers find so many different messages at the heart of the story. Amazon's reviewer describes the book as "a meditation on life and memory." Publishers Weekly says it is about "what it means to love." And Booklist combines these two ideas, calling it "a fantastic exploration into the guises and complexities of art, love, and memory."
In a deceptively simple story, Redhill emphasizes that for each of us, our individual pasts always shapes our understanding of the present. Martin Sloane, a fifty-ish artist who creates enigmatic boxes, and Jolene Iolas, a college student who falls in love with him and his artwork, speak to the reader unpretentiously about the past and present, and one quickly identifies with them, falling into the rhythm of their alternating voices.
Martin's inexplicable disappearance from Jolene's apartment and Jolene's renewed search for him many years later provide a framework for the story, along with unlimited opportunities for the author to explore themes of love and loss, home and family, death and dying, childhood and memory, and, most of all, our personal identities as a result of our separate pasts.
As the reader filters the separate and combined stories of Martin and Jolene through his/her own past experiences, s/he also distills from the author's themes whatever personal messages are relevant, pertinent, or even unique for him or her.
Redhill's background as a poet is obvious here. His ability to compress allows him to pack short scenes with big meanings, to ensure that every detail advances his story and themes, and to create fresh images which allow the reader to see common experiences in new ways. Wonderful, pithy observations keep the reader energized and involved on many levels, while an intriguing mystery maintains the suspense. Though a transition might help to avoid some minor confusion (eventually resolved) in a couple of scenes, and a few questions of character remain unresolved, this is an amazing debut novel. It is not surprising that it took the author twelve years to bring it to fruition. One can only hope it does not take so long for his next novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Martin Sloane at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Wikipedia page on Michael Redhill
- Read Magazine interview with Michael Redhill
- Reading Group Guide for Martin Sloane
- January Magazine review of Martin Sloane
- The Washington Post review of Martin Sloane
- Guardian Unlimited review of Martin Sloane
- Read an excerpt from Fidelity
- CultureVulture.net review of Fidelity
- Guardian Unlimited review of Consolation
- BookLoons review of Consolation
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About the Author:
Michael Redhill was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1966, but has lived most of his life in Toronto. Educated at Indiana University, York University and the University of Toronto, he graduated in 1991 with a BA in English Literature.
He is a poet, playwright, novelist and managing editor of the literary journal Brick. In 2000, he won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for (Independent) Outstanding New Play for Building Jerusalem. He has also worked as editor, ghostwriter, anthologist, scriptwriter, and in leaner times, waiter, house painter, and book seller. Martin Sloane, his first novel, went through 12 complete drafts in ten years before being published. Martin Sloane was shortlisted for the 2001 Giller Prize, nominated for the 2002 Trillium Books Award, won the 2002 Commonweath Writers Prize for First Book and the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award and won the City of Toronto Book Award in 2007.
Michael Redhill lives in Toronto with with his partner Anne and their two sons, Benjamin and Maxime.