Michael Redhill's Consolation (published by Doubleday Canada) is a book about history, about how the study of history can reveal the essence of what it means to be human and how history can provide solace, consolation, in impersonal times. The book follows two stories. In the present day, the Hollis family is grieving the suicide of David, husband, father and fallen-from-grace historian. His wife, Marion, has sought refuge in a hotel over-looking a construction project. Refusing to take calls from her daughters, she watches the digging, hoping to catch a glimpse of truth, something to illuminate her husband's theories and actions, the inner life that was separate from his life with her. She is disrupted only by her son-in-law, John Lewis, whose visits are secret from his own wife, as are his reasons for visiting.
What they are watching for is a boat, buried under the landfill of Toronto's harbour. David Hollis had claimed to have evidence that a complete set of photographic plates depicting 1850s Toronto could be recovered in such a ship, safe within a strongbox, frozen in time, in the rubbish that once was water. This story is revealed in the second narrative, which revolves around J.G. Hallam, a man struggling to make a life in Hobbesian 19th -century Toronto.
As all the characters struggle, so does the city itself. Redhill's depiction of Toronto turns the city into a character, full of mystery, toil and sorrow underneath its modern varnish. Both cities, today's and yesterday's, are more than what they seem. Early Toronto may be a place of nasty, brutish, short lives, but it is also a place where the harbour still freezes, where salmon swim in the Don River and bears, rather than raccoons, roam on the recently cleared streets. Modern Toronto, built on garbage, is prosperous, growing out of control, "extended so far east that it changed names several times before it subsided to country again."
Redhill's text is full of this kind of crisp, stylized imagery, textual echoes of Hallam's photographs. "The medicine that flowed through David's veins could probably change your name," notes one passage. Later, "the street lights came on like the whole city having an idea." Redhill, who has published six volumes of poetry, has the gift of finding the moment, the image, that illuminates something much larger. It is this same ability for which his characters, past and present, are searching, as much as they, themselves, seek to be found. Says David,
You can't be direct with people if there's something important you want them to understand. If you say to them, There is something here of great value, they will stare at you until you produce it, and then they will wait for you to name it and catalogue it and square it away for them. But if you say, I believe there may be something here, then there is a chance, however faint, that they will want to look for it themselves…"
Consolation is as layered as the city, with strata of meaning. Each plunge into the book reveals something deeper below: a family story, a story of redemption, a story about goodness, a story about how, by measures large and small, the past doesn't go anywhere. Redhill's novel serves to remind us of the past which we conceal within, the same way it is concealed in Toronto's ground. Beneath our surfaces, whether raggedy or immaculate, there is something more, something visible only if we are willing to pause our perpetual motion to spend a moment looking for it.
Likewise, the closer you look at Redhill's novel, the more mesmerized you will be. Beautifully written, with characters as layered as any archaeological site, Consolation is a nuanced look at how we deal with grief, family and change, about what the past says about what it means to be human.