Consolation: A Novel
My mother recommended this novel to me not long before she died, so it will have a bittersweet memory to it as long as I live. Neither she nor I have ever been to the mighty city it illuminates so gravely, Toronto, but maybe that fact added to the childlike wonder and mystery with which poet Michael Redhill has composed his story. There is something Oz like, something Byzantian, to the life history of any great city, and Redhill piles this sense on thick, at the same exact time as his narrative becomes literally a place of deconstruction. This leads to a peculiar sense of being given something wonderful, and of losing something equivalent, as the novel's plot seesaws back and forth between the present day and the world of early Ontario, back in the 1850s when a hardy band of winterized pioneers were making a mini-England out of a cursed and chilblained landscape. Not to mention that it was the early days of photography, an infant art that, in recent years, has seen a huge market constructed around it, so that everyday photographs, not only "art" photography, of a certain era has been widly prized behind its makers' wildest dreams.
On top of which, CONSOLATION has the rich characters and the exotic spectrum of histories churning that animated Pasternak's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO or indeed Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA. If i turn to Russian models to get at my experience of living through CONSOLATION, maybe it is because Redhill's novel has a moral authority that haunts the reader long after he or she has finished the very last page. Up until then we have been anxiously awaiting the results of a mystery--so the photos exist, the photos that researcher David Hollis staked his professional reputation on? A ring of photos that, laid end to end, would represent the old city of Toronto, circa 1850, like the mirrors on the edge of a revolving music box? Marianne, his widow, thinks she has it figured out, and she's waiting grimly as one of those mariners wives of the 19th century, stalking her widow's walk from her hotel room overlooking the construction of a new civic area. She's a fascinating character, but from one perspective more than a little mad. In this she is a true daughter of Canada, as we see from the grand, operatic switch to the daily life of Jem Hallam, the man who might have taken the photos.
Hallam is a brilliantly drawn character, vulnerable, talented, generous, superstitious, given to strange bouts of obsession and drawn to all the "wrong" elements in life. He is the exemplar of the early settlers of Canada, the men and women whom fate drew together to form a city. His relationship with the master photographer under whom he serves as apprentice, and with the master's assistant, the beautiful Claudia, serve as wheels to propel his story closer and closer to what seems like an inevitable heartbreak. I was just about four fifths through with the story when I realized where I had heard the name of the author, Michael Redhill, before. He is one of the editors of BRICK magazine in Canada, and I had had some e-mail dealings with him about fifteen months ago. Why did he not mention he had CONSOLATION coming up around the corner? You know how US authors don't miss a trick, and they'll turn their e-mail "signatures" into living, Vegas, adverts for their novels! I thought of CONSOLATION also while looking at Edweard Muybridge's panoramic photos of San Francisco (1877-1878), of course a far later epoch of photography than the one Redhill handles. I won't spoil the ending for you but be prepared, you're in for one of those grand, satisfying finales.