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Consolation

by Michael Redhill

Michael Redhill, author of many works of drama, poetry, and fiction, including the Giller-nominated novel Martin Sloane, sifts through the countless layers that form a city and a person in this, his second novel. Redhill presents two Toronto settings, one from the mid-19th century and the other in the late 1990s. A gentle but unfaltering cadence, a well-tempered voice, and a highly resolved sense of detail bring readers back and forth smoothly between these two eras (though some may find the prose a touch ornate or formal, even in the modern chapters).

Pictures documenting the city in its infancy taken by an apothecary-turnedphotographer, Jem Hallam, act as the link between the book’s two periods. More than a century after the images are taken, academic David Hollis asserts that they exist in a wooden boat lying underneath the earth where Lake Ontario water once stood. The vessel is revealed during excavation for the new Union Arena – no thanks to Hollis, who is mocked in the scholarly community.

Yet Hollis isn’t the novel’s major modern character. He’s dying and requires someone to take on his work, to prove his argument – and ultimately his worth – to his two daughters and his wife. John Lewis, Hollis’s son-in-law, steps in.

The book’s one flaw is that the female characters, especially Hallam’s friend Mrs. Rowe, appear as mere counterpoints to the men. The fact that Hallam and Rowe had a friendship – most improper for the times – necessitates a deeper treatment of her character, something well beyond “fallen woman with a heart of gold.”

Lewis drifts into this family in much the same way that Hallam finds himself taking pictures instead of dispensing tinctures and the like. That life is drift, as much as it is navigation, comes through powerfully in this novel. “But this life had always been waiting for him, it now appeared,” Redhill writes of Hallam, “waiting to be lived, and not even his fumbling judgments, his benighted actions, could affect its unfolding.” The best you can do is to accept this and to console the other rudderless people you bump into in life.