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Consolation: A Novel [Hardcover]

Michael Redhill
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 29 2006
“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.

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From Publishers Weekly

Redhill's signature poetic touch and finely drawn characters are on display in his second novel (after story collection Fidelity and novel Martin Sloane), an homage to Toronto, from its rough and tumble past to its contemporary civility. After avid historian and archivist David Hollis dies, his widow, Marianne, takes on the task of confirming his unfounded claim about the location of the long-lost first photographs ever taken of the city. She's joined by her soon to be son-in-law John, an earnest writer's assistant who seeks to bring his fiancée and mother-in-law together in their grief. Their examination of the past, both in the purview of David's completed life and the panoramic city history, is interwoven with the story of Jem Hallam, a Londoner who moved to Toronto in its Wild West days and found himself allied with a female portrait model and a brokenhearted Irishman. The stories fit together in an unexpected way, and Redhill's taste for quiet examination of relationships, grief and small failures of love make for a thought-provoking read. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—David Hollis was a modern historian and archivist believed to have discovered the existence of a collection of glass photographic plates in the ruins of a shipwreck in Toronto Harbor. Jem Hallam, the photographer, was a young apothecary struggling to survive in the Toronto frontier of 1857. Hollis's story is told through the lens of his widow, Marianne, who is staking out the site her husband claimed was the location of the plates. It is now the construction site for a future sports arena, but Marianne, aided by her daughter's fiancé, is scouring it for both the plates and vindication of her husband's shipwreck theory. One hundred and fifty years earlier, Hallam's story is of his struggle for survival with a failing business, absent family, and ferocious climate. Both men had something to prove, with their links of shared temperament and inclination, and both suffered from the humiliations of failed hopes and dreams. This is a book as chilly, profound, and subtle as a cold winter day. In spite of its deliberate pace, the lives of the characters creep up on and wholly engage readers. Redhill is primarily a poet and that is evident in this prose work. It is as precise and nuanced as his Martin Sloane (Little, Brown, 2002) and will appeal to readers with a taste for a carefully constructed story told with a haunting turn of phrase.—Sallie Barringer, Walnut Hills High School, Cincinnati, OH
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Actually, three and a *half* stars... Sept. 6 2007
By Schmadrian TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
I waited a long time to read this book. (Financial shortfalls, doncha know...) I was excited to find out that it was set in Toronto, that it might end up being 'the great Toronto novel'. (Especially after a correspondence this year with The Toronto Star's Philip Marchand on this very subject.)

Over the past two weeks, I read Redhill's debut novel, 'Martin Sloane' and his collection of short fiction, 'Fidelity' in order to prepare for this Man-Booker Prize nomination. Reading the first portion of 'Consolation', I wasn't convinced that what I was reading was going to knock my socks off. Fortunately, the novel soon enough took off and pretty much read it right through over about a day and a half. The verdict?

Mr Redhill deserves top maks for having created two characters that really, really got on my nerves, two people I really wanted to hit. His other characterizations were not as evocative. He also deserves a gold pixie for having contrasted the narrative styles of the two time-frames portrayed; Toronto in the 1850s and the 1990s. The vocabulary for the former era was especially fitting, nicely appropriate. And he managed to make me cry. Three times.

Did 'Consolation' live up to my expectations, or the hype? Hmm... No. In the end, I suppose I'd have to sum it up this way: while the premise is a knock-out one, and Mr Redhill is a very good, developing writer...would that he were as gifted a storyteller. I can think of at least three other writers who might have run a little farther, with a little more gusto and with a better end result had they authored 'Consolation'. Still, it was worth the wait.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Meaningful to me Feb. 16 2008
By microfiche TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I was prepared to be ambivalent about this novel. I find Canadian novels bleak and overwrought with death, suffering and 'big thoughts'. This book was no exception, but since I am a history buff and work with the old books and manuscripts in the Reference Library, naturally I ploughed through. I clicked with David and with Jem Hallam [not the real life John Hallam, the late 19th c. businessman who was instrumental in getting Toronto to have a free public library, but I think it's serendipitous that his name is on this character. Mr. H. collected many books, esp. on the history of Canada]. I too have 'seen' the old cities superimposed on the modern one before me. I can almost feel the doggedness and the sorrow of the mourners at Potter's field as I pass the Bank of Commerce building that stands on its site. And I could relate to Mr. Hallam. I think any Toronto immigrant could. He found a cold money oriented city, but he gradually, through Ennis and Claudia, put down roots and made a sort of life, a sort of footprint in the city. Not with the panorama, though that helped.
The book needed those pictures. There are copies of the panorama at the National Archives and at the Reference Library. They should be seen in the book because That was the Toronto Hallam saw.
The writing is evocative and powerful, but pretentious in the modern sections. I wish that David had told the story before he died. He would have shown the city's roots with more passion than his family accepted it.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Haunting short Jan. 10 2007
By Armchair Interviews - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Throughout history, humankind has been fascinated with those who lived before them. At any given moment, hundreds of archaeologists and historians are searching for remnants of lost civilizations and peoples from aeons past.

In this new novel, Michael Redhill introduces us to one such historian, David Hollis. Through much research, Hollis feels he has pinpointed the location of a steel strongbox, containing an enormous treasure: glass negatives from the earliest pictures ever taken of Toronto when it was still in its newborn stages. Unfortunately, we no sooner meet Hollis than we lose him. He has Lou Gehrig's disease, and commits suicide in the very first chapter. We learn more about Hollis from his wife, Marianne, than from observing him.

Marianne, upon her husband's untimely demise, determines that she will vindicate his life's work, and sets out to find the strongbox. She learns the exact location, underneath a landfill being excavated for a sports stadium. She takes up residence in a hotel overlooking the project, and watches and waits for her opportunity to find the treasure.

Throughout the book, we also become aquainted with the citizens of early Toronto. This is a remarkable glimpse into the past for those of us firmly rooted in the 21st century. I found these chapters more enjoyable than the present-day chapters.

This book provides a haunting look at the past, the present, and what men will do for fame, honor, and money.

Armchair Interviews says: Unique look at Toronto's history.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "He belonged in this place, with these people . . ." Feb. 3 2008
By Kevin Killian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
My mother recommended this novel to me not long before she died, so it will have a bittersweet memory to it as long as I live. Neither she nor I have ever been to the mighty city it illuminates so gravely, Toronto, but maybe that fact added to the childlike wonder and mystery with which poet Michael Redhill has composed his story. There is something Oz like, something Byzantian, to the life history of any great city, and Redhill piles this sense on thick, at the same exact time as his narrative becomes literally a place of deconstruction. This leads to a peculiar sense of being given something wonderful, and of losing something equivalent, as the novel's plot seesaws back and forth between the present day and the world of early Ontario, back in the 1850s when a hardy band of winterized pioneers were making a mini-England out of a cursed and chilblained landscape. Not to mention that it was the early days of photography, an infant art that, in recent years, has seen a huge market constructed around it, so that everyday photographs, not only "art" photography, of a certain era has been widly prized behind its makers' wildest dreams.

On top of which, CONSOLATION has the rich characters and the exotic spectrum of histories churning that animated Pasternak's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO or indeed Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA. If i turn to Russian models to get at my experience of living through CONSOLATION, maybe it is because Redhill's novel has a moral authority that haunts the reader long after he or she has finished the very last page. Up until then we have been anxiously awaiting the results of a mystery--so the photos exist, the photos that researcher David Hollis staked his professional reputation on? A ring of photos that, laid end to end, would represent the old city of Toronto, circa 1850, like the mirrors on the edge of a revolving music box? Marianne, his widow, thinks she has it figured out, and she's waiting grimly as one of those mariners wives of the 19th century, stalking her widow's walk from her hotel room overlooking the construction of a new civic area. She's a fascinating character, but from one perspective more than a little mad. In this she is a true daughter of Canada, as we see from the grand, operatic switch to the daily life of Jem Hallam, the man who might have taken the photos.

Hallam is a brilliantly drawn character, vulnerable, talented, generous, superstitious, given to strange bouts of obsession and drawn to all the "wrong" elements in life. He is the exemplar of the early settlers of Canada, the men and women whom fate drew together to form a city. His relationship with the master photographer under whom he serves as apprentice, and with the master's assistant, the beautiful Claudia, serve as wheels to propel his story closer and closer to what seems like an inevitable heartbreak. I was just about four fifths through with the story when I realized where I had heard the name of the author, Michael Redhill, before. He is one of the editors of BRICK magazine in Canada, and I had had some e-mail dealings with him about fifteen months ago. Why did he not mention he had CONSOLATION coming up around the corner? You know how US authors don't miss a trick, and they'll turn their e-mail "signatures" into living, Vegas, adverts for their novels! I thought of CONSOLATION also while looking at Edweard Muybridge's panoramic photos of San Francisco (1877-1878), of course a far later epoch of photography than the one Redhill handles. I won't spoil the ending for you but be prepared, you're in for one of those grand, satisfying finales.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Layers of Memory, Time, and Place Rub Together Irresistibly April 13 2007
By Janet Riehl - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Michael Redhill's "Consolation" layers memory, perception, place, time, grief, secrets, relationship, and hope in an irresistible rubbing of century against century and life against life. Throughout the lifespan of the book Redhill's character's gain compassion, and this compassion dawns as wisdom--for many of the lives that we follow so intimately here. I can only feel gratitude that this book exists.

--Janet Grace Riehl, author Sightlines: A Poet's Diary
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Search for the Past Oct. 13 2007
By Sam Sattler - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Michael Redhill's novel Consolation is a book with several faces. It is a miniature history of the city of Toronto, a mystery of the non-murder sort, and a touching character study that focuses on the attempts of two groups of people, separated by more than a century, who are forced to deal with life's adversities when they least expected to have to do so.

David Hollis is a university historian, a late twentieth century man obsessed by his city's history and the people who lived in it before him. He has become convinced that a complete set of the earliest photographs ever taken of the city of Toronto was lost in a storm just offshore and that they are now buried under streets built on reclaimed land that was once part of Lake Ontario. He has dedicated his life to identifying the Toronto of the 1850s that is hidden by the Toronto of today, but when he finds that he has Lou Gering's disease he knows that he has little time left to convince anyone of authority to help him find the lost photographic plates.

Jem Hallam is newly arrived in the Toronto of 1855, sent to the city from London to start a new pharmacy at the direction of his father. Hallam left behind a wife and two daughters, hoping that they would join him in Toronto as soon as the business began to show a profit. Things do not go well for Jem Hallam and, although he is never seems quite sure how it all happened, he eventually finds himself in the photography trade and living with a dying photographer and a woman he took into his life in order to save her from a sure death on the streets of the city.

In alternating segments, the reader is able to follow both the efforts of David Hollis to identify the possible location of the missing plates and the evolution of Jem Hallam from failed pharmacist to successful photographer. Hollis, becoming more and more helpless at the hands of the cruel disease he suffered, and finding little support in his quest from colleagues, decided to end his life. It is left up to his wife and his daughter and her fiancé to try to salvage his reputation as they try to stop the construction of a new sports facility on the very spot identified by Hollis as likely to be the final resting place of this important record of Toronto's early history.

Redhill seamlessly moves back and forth between the stories of these two men whose lives have become intertwined despite the fact that they lived more than a century apart. Jem Hallam, forced to fight for his survival in a manner he had no way to foresee when he arrived in Toronto, and feeling guilty for carving out a new life for himself with strangers while abandoning his wife and daughters in London to the care of his father, eventually produces the photos that David Hollis will so desperately search for in the future. Or did he? That's where the mystery begins.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poetic and lyrical, "Consolation" is a gem Jan. 23 2009
By Reader from Singapore - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Michael Redhill's "Consolation" is the kind of book that needs a book prize award to draw the attention of readers and though it didn't win big, it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. And what a wonderfully written novel it is. There's wondrous poetry and a certain rather attractive lyricism to Redhill's prose that makes "Consolation" such a pleasure to spend one's precious hours with.

There are two stories running alongside each other here, a back story of immense romanticism and interest that testify to the pioneering spirit of early immigrants into the North American continent in the 19th century, fore grounded by a rather bitter and strident cast of present day characters trying to come to terms with a family suicide and professional disgrace connected with a shipwreck theory that beneath the construction site for a sports arena lies tangible evidence of certain photographic plates carrying pictures of old Toronto. The suicide's guilt ridden widow Marianne, tries to vindicate the belief of her deceased husband, against the strong objection of her daughter who urge letting bygones be bygones, by holing herself in a hotel room overlooking the site hoping to get government approval to unearth archaelogical evidence to clear her husband's name. As it turns out, her prospective son-in-law holds the key to the mystery surrounding her husband's death.

Surprisingly but then perhaps not, it is the back story set in the 19th century of English apothecary Jem Hallam's sojourn westwards in search of a better life, his capitulation to rivals controlling the trade, his life transforming chance meeting with Ennis and Claudia, that would enthrall and hold me captive throughout. This back story is so gloriously life affirming and poignant, its characters so well formed, human and believable, the present day story becomes an unwelcome distraction. The plot is static, the prose sometimes obscure or terse, and the characters unaccountably bad tempered and unsympathetic. I couldn't wait to get back to Hallam's story every time the narrative switched back to the present.

"Consolation" is only marred by a denouement that promised much but sadly disintegrated into a muddy mess. I must have missed something if other readers didn't also go "huh" ?? Despite this, "Consolation" is a tremendous piece of work I enjoyed very much and would highly recommend to other readers of serious fiction.
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