The New York Times
Consolationby Michael Redhill
From the award-winning author of "Martin Sloane" and "Fidelity" comes a riveting story of two families in different centuries--one searching for the past, the other creating a record of it.
The New York Times
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
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By Michael Redhill
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Caribou River Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMARIANNE 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."
"I'm fine." She scuffed her bare feet on the hotel carpet, thinner here, at the side of the bed. She lifted her face, breathed out quietly toward the stuccoed ceiling with her mouth wide. "How is your fiancé?" she said.
"Like you care how he is. Don't change the subject."
"I do care."
"So you want to talk to him then? I'll put him on." Bridget lowered the phone and Marianne heard the close, hollow sound of the receiver being muffled. Under it, John's voice saying, "Me?"
Bridget came back on the line. "I'm just going to come down there, okay, Mum? I'll bring you something to eat."
"They have room service."
"You know what I mean."
"And you know what I mean."
"You want to be alone."
"And watch a hole in the ground."
"And is Alison coming?"
"Your sister's in Philadelphia."
"I know that, but is she coming? Did you ask her to come?"
Marianne had thought ofcalling Alison, but her younger daughter had a second child to worry about now and didn't need to know her mother was having an interesting reaction to the death of her father. "I haven't spoken to Alison," she said.
"Bridget, your opinion of your sister's -"
"She'll understand. It would be nice if you could do that too."
"I understand but that doesn't mean I -"
"I'm glad you understand," said Marianne. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, I promise."
She hung up before Bridget could say another word and kept her hand closed around the receiver as if pressing her finger against those lips. She took the phone off the hook and laid it on the bedside table. They charged two dollars for a local call here, but at the kiosk on the ground floor you could buy a phone card and, for eighty-five cents, talk to someone in Lithuania for an hour. She didn't know anyone in Lithuania. She hardly knew anyone here, except for the room service people, and they never said anything but "Will that be all?" and "Thank you, Mrs. Hollis." She stared at the silenced phone, imagined Bridget calling back and getting the hotel operator again, being asked if she'd like to leave a message. She didn't want to hear it. This silence was necessary.
Through the room's north-facing window she looked at the upper halves of downtown buildings that ranged up into the center of the city. At her feet, the room was tight with clutter, like something shattered and held in a fist. She got up and stepped over discarded newspaper sections and books splayed open on the floor where they'd fallen, their dustjackets loose. As she moved closer to the window, the object of her attention hoved into view: a slowly deepening hole at the foot of the hotel. From where she stood, she could see what anyone on this side of the hotel above the fifth floor could see: the whole expanse of a construction site, congested with yellow machines twenty-four hours a day, and the busy bodies of men and women ranging over the acre or so of dirt, with its steel framing, PVC piping, and heavy wooden beams. But to the occupants of room 647 or 1147 or 3447 - the room directly above hers - the busy excavation was just some faint hint of the future, like all the holes in this city were that eventually generated condominiums and shopping centers and bank towers. Marianne was the only person in the hotel for whom the pit at the foot of the hotel meant the past.
They were digging out the foundation of a new arena. A boondoggle of municipal and private money had been dedicated to the creation of an unnecessary new hockey palace. They'd broken ground on the new arena just as fall began in earnest, the leaves radiating back the whole spectrum of light they'd absorbed since April, fading out yellow, orange, red, and the builders were already three months behind schedule. They'd started gutting the old post office in June but had spent the rest of the summer wrangling with the municipal government, fighting with the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, the neighborhood associations, the seeming swarms of local citizens' groups and area historians, all of whom wanted their say, and who were finally dispatched with reassurances that the local ecology (crushed Tetra Paks, rotting blankets and parkas, pigeons) would be respected, and any finds of interest turned over to the correct authorities. If she had learned anything from her husband's life work, however, it was not to trust the promises of developers.
That bed of dirt was nothing more than landfill honeycombed with a century's debris, but it had been of great interest to David Hollis. He'd spent his working life teaching "forensic geology" - a field he'd invented that combined landforms with sleuthing. He took his students out to local fields or caves with little hammers and corked phials of sulphuric acid to hunt down specimens and take note of various topographical events. They became adept at following old river paths, and learned to date settlements, when they found them, by overgrowth. Abandoned cemeteries presented fascinating opportunities for in situ casework: he'd ask them to determine the year of the last burial by comparing different stages of gravestone erosion and making calculations. All of this was actual geology, and by the third time he brought the same group out, they all came to within three years of the date of the last burial. Standing there, among the living, he felt the beautiful and numinous relationship of his young students to the community of these dead, whose last official moment they'd teased out of the silent witnesses to their lives. The forest that those people had built their houses and coffins out of now gave testament by counting out the hours and years since. There was (it had come to him in a flash, he later told Marianne) a science to determining how time passes. Human beings interrupt the natural cycles of growth and decay with their communities and their structures, but they don't stop those cycles. Rather, the processes continue, like river water flowing around a stone. Except the river water is made of cities and buildings, and the stone is pushed underground and lost forever. Unless.
Before his death, he'd published a monograph about these shorelands that Marianne looked out on from the hotel. The booklet suggested there was greatness in that anonymous dirt, but his colleagues had ridiculed him, had accused him of inventing his source. These people ("those fuckers" was their official designation) had paraded him in front of committees, and only the intervention of his oldest colleague at the university had saved David from complete ignominy. But not, of course, from death. The lakebed accepted all manner of discards.
David's source had been a diary he'd turned up in the rare book library at the University of Toronto. Pyramids of Bankers Boxes there held the barely cataloged papers of perhaps eight defunct archives dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Squinting academics had stroked the John Graves Simcoe papers with cotton gloves (the city's founder! the holy grail!) and taken down every last bon mot muttered by him or any of his bucktoothed relations; Simcoe and Mayor Howland and William Lyon Mackenzie and Timothy Eaton had spawned biographical industries. And yet, David had somehow ferreted out an unknown eyewitness with a story of early Toronto.
But David refused to produce this diary - Let people show some faith, he'd said. His dean, Gerry Lanze, had all but begged him to produce it - or at least, for God's sake, a call number - but David had declined. Proof lacks the power of conviction, he'd said.
He'd been made a laughingstock. The abandoned post office, still owned by the city, remained unexplored and the area was a hodgepodge of expressways, steakhouses, railway lands, breweries, shipyards, and printing plants. Faith in the "city before we arrived" did not hold any allure to the municipal klatch. Hockey and basketball did. Ten weeks after the publication of his monograph, they dredged him out of the lake.
SHE CAME to the hotel as October ended and requested a northwest corner room on the thirty-third floor. She wanted to plug in her own lamps and use her own linens. She would take care of the place herself, wanted to be undisturbed - intended to finish a novel there, she said, and she required the utmost privacy. Once the manager determined to his satisfaction that his hotel would be home to an artist (and was told he would personally be thanked in the acknowledgments), he admitted her on her terms. Five porters accompanied her to the thirty-third floor, moved her things into the small but comfortable room, and then clogged the little space in front of the door like Keystone Kops. She handed the one in front a twenty.
It had taken her a few hours to pack a bag of her things at the house and then two boxes of books and papers from David's library. Some of these were his writings - older monographs, or books including chapters he'd written, books on urban development at the turn of the century, pamphlets done for the Department of Earth Sciences on specialty subjects such as archival practice before 1920, reverse erosion (a computer program that retro-modeled shorelines based on historical snow- and rainfall measurements), and air-to-ground cartographic reconciliations. He'd also written a textbook on forensic geology and topography that was the standard in many American schools (and as a result was coming into use in Canada). Marianne gathered up her copy of his damning monograph, a maquette of the city in 1856 that one of his students had made for him, and a tower of photocopied newspaper pages. Lastly, she took two art deco standing lamps from the front room (David had hated these lamps), some blankets and pillows, and called two cabs to bring it all downtown.
One of the lamps she placed beside the bed, a trilight that provided mood, reading, and daytime settings. She put the other one near the door, beside the bathroom, to give the impression of a larger space: when lit, it made the little entranceway look more like a foyer. Hotels never wasted lighting on entranceways, but she hated the darkness of exits and entries. They'd installed key-lights on a track down the middle of the front hallway at the house to make that space glow with welcome.
From a market below the hotel, she bought a bag of apples and a box of clementines, which had just made their appearance in stores. They'd scent the room of home and fall, and if she'd had so much as a hotplate, she would have boiled a cinnamon stick on it too. In the room, she peeled three of the clementines and scattered the skins under the beds and along the wide ledges, and sucked on the sections while standing in the middle of the space, looking for gaps where the hotel's soul showed through too plainly. She unloaded her books and papers, and organized them in piles on the west-facing ledge, as much in categories as she could manage, so she'd be able to find sources if she needed them. She suspected she would not need them: in the main, her work was observation. She'd brought the books, books he had loved, to have his company while she was there.
SHE IMAGINED Bridget's voice trapped in the cul-de-sac of the disconnected phone. She looked at it from the window - just a harmless thing when unplugged - and resolved to keep it off the hook for a couple of days. Knowing it would not ring made the room feel a little more lonesome, and she went to sit at the desk beside the television where she kept her copy of David's monograph, leaning upright against the wall. She'd wrapped the cover of the little book in a protective plastic sheeting, and when she sat at the desk at a certain angle - which she avoided doing - she could see her face in it. The cover said:
A Deduction Using Forensic Topographical Methods in Conjunction with Archival Source Materials of the Location of the Plate Negatives of the 1856 Toronto Panorama and 352 Other Items, with Some Comments.
And centered below it:
David M. Hollis, Ph.D., A monograph published to mark the opening of The Symposium on the Victorian City in Canada, University of Toronto, May 30-June 2, 1997.
She picked it up, as she did many times in a day, and tilted it into the light from the window. It reflected the white-and-blue sky and elided his name in clouds. She put it down and crossed to the window. Maybe the hotel would not be an unpleasant place to be holed up with grief, she thought. Its windows drew in a clear bright light from the north and the west, and it would not be any harder to sleep alone in one of its two double beds than at home. There were sounds of machines from outside, and voices through the walls, and even art to look at: two lithographs on the walls, of the models of the solar system preferred, in one, by Copernicus, and in the other, by Ptolemy. They flanked the television set.
BRIDGET SAID, "WHAT I understand is that you're acting like a madwoman." She looked across the living room at John, who was sitting at attention on the couch, a book open in his lap. "Mum?" She shook her head slowly. "She hung up on me."
"Let her be for now," John Lewis said.
"Do you know what she's doing?" He closed the book and pushed himself up from the couch, took the phone out of her hand. He tried to kiss her and she pulled her head back to see his eyes. "Do you?"
"She's taking a break."
"She's living at the Harbour Light Hotel. Watching the Union Arena excavation." She took the phone back from him. "Now do you think she's crazy?"
He slipped the book back into its space on the shelf, running two fingers along its spine to ensure it was flush with the others. It was the sort of gesture Bridget noticed and made fun of from time to time, but she was silent now, looking through him. "I think you should leave her alone," he said. "It's been two months. She should do whatever she needs to help her cope."
"She doesn't want me down there."
"You shouldn't take it personally."
She laughed at him.
"I have to go to Howard's," he said. "I have stuff for him. Have a drink, take Bailey for a walk." The dog snapped to attention at the sound of her name. "You'll feel different later."
"That would suit you."
"It'll suit you too."
She stood with her arms crossed, an obelisk. Then she seemed to decide to drop it for now. "Will you ask your employer to actually pay you?" she said. "Tell him you can't wait until his next hit play."
He kissed her and held her face against his. He felt the tendons in her neck standing up beneath his palm.
Excerpted from Consolation by Michael Redhill Copyright © 2006 by Caribou River Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
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.
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