“There is a vast part of this city with mouths buried in it . . . . Mouths capable of speaking to us. But we stop them up with concrete and build over them and whatever it is they wanted to say gets whispered down empty alleys and turns into wind. . . .”
These are among the last words of Professor David Hollis before he throws himself off a ferry into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario. A renowned professor of “forensic geology,” David leaves in his wake both a historical mystery and an academic scandal. He postulated that on the site where a sports arena is about to be built lie the ruins of a Victorian boat containing an extraordinary treasure: a strongbox full of hundreds of never-seen photographs of early Toronto, a priceless record of a lost city. His colleagues, however, are convinced that he faked his research materials.
Determined to vindicate him, his widow, Marianne, sets up camp in a hotel overlooking the construction site, watching and waiting for the boat to be unearthed. The only person to share her vigil is John Lewis, fiancé to her daughter, Bridget. An orphan who had come to love David as his own father, John finds himself caught in a struggle between mother and daughter–all the while keeping a dark secret from both women.
Interwoven into the contemporary story is another narrative set in 1850s: the tale of Jem Hallam, a young apothecary struggling to make a living in the harsh new city so he can bring his wife and daughters from England. Crushed by ruthless competitors, he develops an unlikely friendship with two other down-on-their-luck Torontonians: Samuel Ennis, a brilliant but dissolute Irishman, and Claudia Rowe, a destitute widow. Together they establish a photography business and set out to create images of a fledgling city where wooden sidewalks are put together with penny nails, where Indians spear salmon at the river mouth and the occasional bear ambles down King Street, where department stores display international wares and fine mansions sit cheek-by-jowl with shantytowns.
Consolation moves back and forth between David Hollis’s legacy and Jem Hallam’s struggle to survive, ultimately revealing a mysterious connection between the two narratives. Exquisitely crafted and masterfully written, Michael Redhill’s superlative book reveals how history is often transformed into a species of fantasy, and how time alters the contours of even the things we hold most certain. As complex and layered as the city whose story it tells, Consolation evokes the mysteries of love and memory, and what suffering the absence of the beloved truly means.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
Late summer, the August air already cooling, and some of the migrators are beginning south. Hear the faint booming high up against windows before sunrise, pell-mell flight into sky-mirrored bank towers. Good men and women collect them and carry their stunned forms around in paper bags, try to revive them. Lost art of husbandry. By the time the sun is up, the reflected heat from the day before is already building again in glass surfaces.
A man is standing by the lakeshore at the Hanlan’s Point ferry dock. Cicadas in the grass near the roadway, cars passing behind the hotel. The ferry rush hour is over already at 8:15, and the Hanlan’s Point ferry is the least frequent of them all, as it takes passengers to a buggy, unkempt part of the Toronto Islands. But it is the most peaceful ride, ending close to wilderness. The Duchess. He sees it departing for the city from its island dock, on the other side of the harbour. He stretches his arm out at eye level, like he once taught his daughters to do, and the ferry travels over the palm of his hand.
At the kiosk beside the gate he buys a Coffee Crisp, struggles with the wrapper. He hands it to a woman standing near him at the gate. “My fingers are useless,” he tells her.
She neatly tears the end of the package open. Such precision. Gives him the candy peeled like a fruit. “Arthritis?”
“No,” he says. “Lou Gehrig’s. Sometimes they work fine. But never in the mornings.”
She makes a kissing noise and shakes her head. “That’s awful.”
“I’m okay,” he says, holding a hand up, warding off pity. “It’s a beautiful morning, and I’m eating a chocolate bar beside a pretty girl. One day at a time.”
She smiles for him. “Good for you.”
The docks are two hundred and forty feet out from the lake’s original shoreline. Landfill pushed everything forward. Buildings erupted out of it like weeds. The city, walking on water.
All aboard. The woman who helped him with the chocolate bar waits behind him – perhaps politely – as he gets on, but says nothing else to him. There are only six passengers, and except for him they disappear into the cramped cabin on one side of the ferry, or go up front with their bikes or their blades slung over their shoulders. He stays on the deck, holding tight to the aft lash-post, watching the city slide away.
The foghorn’s low animal bellow. The ship moves backwards through the murky water fouled with shoes and weeds and duckshit. This close to the skyline, an optical illusion: the dock recedes from the boat, but tiers of buildings ranging up behind the depot appear to push forward, looming over the buildings in front of them. The whole downtown clenching the water’s edge in its fist.
The lighthouse on Hanlan’s Point has been there since 1808. It marks the beginning of the harbour, and in the days of true shipping, if the weather in the lake had been rough, the lighthouse signalled the promise of home. He can’t see it from the rear of the ferry, but he can picture it in his mind: yellow brick; rough, round walls. A lonesome building made for one person, a human outpost sending news of safety in arcs of light. A good job, he thinks, to be the man with that message.
Five minutes into the crossing, he removes a little ball of tin foil from an inside pocket and unwraps four tiny blue pills. Sublingual Ativan, chemical name lorazepam, an artificial opiate. Four pills is twenty milligrams, at least twice the normal dose. He puts them under his tongue and they dissolve into a sweet slurry, speeding into his blood through the cells under his tongue, the epithelia in his cheeks, his throat, up the mainline to his brain, soothing and singing their mantra. You are loved. He’s taken this many before, and ridden the awesome settling of mind and soul all the way down into a sleep full of smiling women, bright fields, houses smelling of supper.
Marianne is still at home, in bed.
He can see the whole city now, a crystalline shape glowing on the shoreline where once had been nothing but forest and swamp. After that, the fires of local tribes, the creaking forts of the French, the garrisons and dirt roads and yellow-bricked churches of the English and the Scots. It’s only overwhelming if you try to take it all in at once, he thinks, if you try to see it whole. Otherwise, just a simple progression in time. Not that far away in the past at all, even – the mechanisms that make it seem to be are simple ones. Just a change in materials, a shift in fashion.
This joyous well-being holds him. He doesn’t mind that it’s chemical: everything is chemical. Happiness and desolation, fear of death, the little gaps between nerves where feeling leaps. He holds tight to the lash-post and shimmies around to the front of it, drinking the moist air in ecstatic gulps. The vague slopings of the deck are transmitted to his brain as an optical illusion: the city pitching up gently and subsiding, up and down, his senses marvellously lulled. Water moving under the boat. Sky, city, blue-black lake, city, sky. The peaceful sound of water lapping the hull. He lets the swells help him forward and up. More air against him now, his thin windbreaker flapping, his mouth full of wind, the sound of a long, deep breath –
THE HARBOUR LIGHT
Toronto, November 1997
Marianne held the phone to her ear and waited for her daughter’s voice. Outside the hotel window, the dark was coming earlier than it had the night before, a failing in the west. There was, at last, a slow exhale on the other end of the line: unhappy surrender.
“And you really wonder where Alison gets her drama gene?”
“She gets it from your father.”
“There’s a difference between passion and spectacle, Mum. This is spectacle.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Michael Redhill is the publisher and one of the editors of Brick, a literary magazine, and the author of the novel Martin Sloane, a finalist for the 2001 Giller Prize, and the short story collection Fidelity. He has also written four poetry collections, including Asphodel, published in 1997, and Light-Crossing, published in 2001. His most recent works for the theatre are Goodness and Building Jerusalem, winner of a Dora Award.
Consolation, Redhill’s second novel, was shortlisted for the 2007 Toronto Book Award. In an interview with the Edmonton Journal, he described how he was inspired by a real photograph taken in thirteen parts in the winter of 1856 as part of a campaign to entice Queen Victoria to choose the city as the capital of pre-Confederation Canada: “I knew there was something in the pictures I wanted to write about. But the more I scribbled things down, the more I began to recognize a resonance between that dead city, no stitch of which exists anymore, and modern Toronto. The attitude and striving is still prevalent.” He adds: “It’s a strange, self-loathing city that at the same time is constantly striving to be world class and noticed. The city never tends to think about its own needs; it thinks about what other people might find impressive.”
Michael Redhill lives with his partner and their two sons in France.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
“Some of the best historical fiction about Toronto. . . . Home and muse, the city that has ignited Redhill’s imagination will captivate and haunt the imagination of readers of this luminous novel.” —Vancouver Sun
“Redhill succeeds admirably, evoking the past in its every strangely familiar detail. Toronto is not the only city of whose history it might be said ‘a hint . . . is all we have.’ Consolation shows that, for the ready imagination, a hint may be all that is needed.” — The Gazette (Montreal)
“Tricky, absorbing. . . . The book is enlivened by lovely tropes for everything from the weather . . . to the oddly animated nature of landfill. . . . A novel whose preoccupations have been nurtured and earned. . . . In Consolation, Redhill proves himself ready to make the fateful nature of photography into a matter of collective destiny, for both a small grieving family and a vast incurious city.”–The New York Times Book Review
“Michael Redhill has written a gift to Toronto. The city, with its imperfect past and present, is central to Consolation, a beautiful work of fiction about life, love and land, and the way people cope with the loss of all three… a novel replete with stunning imagery, ambivalent accolades, true-to-life characters, dialogue that sounds utterly real and moments of literary brilliance…” — Winnipeg Free Press
“Consolation’s elegance, like Redhill’s many descriptions of old Toronto, is in its architecture, as it moves easily through two interrelated stories. . . . Redhill shows himself a masterful researcher and compiler of details — exactly the kind of writer you need to tell a story of yesterday.” — The Globe and Mail
“It may be deemed THE novel of Toronto…. Vital and fascinating… Redhill’s prose is fluid and evocative…. It may not always be the image city fathers could prefer, but it has a fine ring of truth.” — Edmonton Journal
“A beautiful and dreamy story, gorgeously written and movingly told, about the myriad ways the past lingers just below the surface of the present and inevitably shapes the future. It is the story of a family, but also the story of Toronto, a city that's constantly recreating itself and, in so doing, constantly shrugging off its awkward past…. Redhill's recreation of old Toronto is so vivid you can almost hear the rumble of carriage wheels on the cobblestones as you turn the pages.” — Calgary Herald
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel