Consolation By Michael Redhill
It is a good year so far for Michael Redhill. His play, Goodness, has just won the Best of Edinburgh at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and will go into production in Manhattan. His newest novel, Consolation, is also likely to be a winner. It will certainly be a bestseller this fall and we will watch the nominations for the literary awards.
When Michael Redhill read from his earlier novels here a couple of years ago, he talked of being lucky to have his first novel win awards and sell well.
I believe it is skill, not luck that has made this writer one of our finest. He has matured with this novel.
I believe it will appeal to both men and women, and find him an audience.
Consolation is set in Toronto in in the year 1997 and Toronto in the mid 1850's.
It is a novel of love and death. The two great events of the human condition - we might say they are the themes of all novels. Certainly they are the themes of Consolation - as well as loyalty, betrayal - and consolation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word consolation is a noun meaning the alleviating of grief or disappointment, or a verb; to console, or to bring solace, comfort in distress or disappointment, to find relief in - we think of this as we read.
The family in the contemporary half of this novel is grieving. David Hollis is dead . He was dying of ALS and decided to commit suicide before becoming completely incapacitated.
After the death of David, his widow, Marianne, becomes obsessed with discovering what, if any, truth there is behind the theories of her husband - including the reality, or not, of a collection of photographs that may have documented the city in the 1850s.
Drawn into her obsession is her daughter Bridget's fiancé, John. John has his own guilt concerning the death of David, which he has kept secret.
John will later discover that a “comforting lie” can be more harmful than the truth that must be told to truly find comfort.
John's only desire is to care for the people he loves. It is his desire to help them find peace, comfort, consolation. This desire drives John's actions even as he becomes unsure of his motivation.
John thinks that “Once he'd confessed a wish to himself to ‘give comfort’ and thought it, it was something anyone who was capable of loving could do”.
In tandem with this contemporary story is the story of Jeb Hallam, a pharmacist in the city of Toronto in the 1850s. Jeb has come to the new world from London, England to open a branch of the family business. He is a reluctant businessman and finds himself overwhelmingly lonely so far away from his wife and daughter.
Jeb is a man of fierce conscience and finds himself the savior of an ailing photographer, and then a destitute woman. Jeb struggles with his loyalties as he becomes increasingly involved in his new life - and more and more detached from the life he left behind.
Michael Redhill ponders “it has always been a popular pastime to think of the last moments of an old life, before two people set eyes on each other for the first time, or the instant before an unfortunate choice is made. All of the past is erased in tiny moments like this.” This is Jeb's situation.
These are days of rapid change in the city, and in the art and craft of photography. Jeb's skill as a chemist makes him an excellent photographer's apprentice – and the financial success he was not able to accomplish as an apothecary.
It is also photography that binds these two worlds together and brings some consolation to them all. This might be one of the best books you read this fall.