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."