CONSOLATION by Michael Redhill (Doubleday), 469 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Consolation is the kind of book that usually has me rolling my eyes. It has parallel narratives (not exactly a new device) and a historical component that perpetuates that annoying tendency among Canadian novelists to avoid a consistent focus on the pesky present tense.
But in this instance it's the novel's period plot that makes it especially engaging.
The book opens in the present with the suicide of ALS victim David Hollis, an act partly motivated by his degenerating health but also by the fact that his reputation as a historian has been badly sullied.
After his death, his son-in-law John and wife, Marianne, try to vindicate him. They stand watch in a hotel room overlooking a construction site that they hope will unearth evidence that Hollis was right - a crucial archive of photographs documenting Muddy York, lost in a shipwreck 150 years ago.
In a parallel narrative set in 1856, J. G. Hallam has left his family in London, England, to set up shop in Canada as an apothecary. Pushed out of the business by bullying competitors, he reluctantly takes a partnership in a photography firm and is eventually hired by the city to document its growth. Hallam sets to work on what becomes the treasure trove that is historian Hollis's obsession.
Michael Redhill writes like the poet he is, vividly evoking filthy old Toronto and Hallam's growing affection for a town he originally thought would kill him. He creates some superb characters - especially dope addict photographer Ennis, and Claudia, his muse, who becomes another partner in the business.
Consolation is meticulously researched and unique in its accomplished blending of archival authenticity - usually a major snore - with a deep emotional charge.