It probably won’t surprise you, on a site like this, to hear that I love this city and think it’s awesome. Naturally, I do. And that’s why I became so excited when my fearless editor asked me to review a novel that can only be described as being about Toronto: Consolation, by Michael Redhill. Consolation is not merely a book about a city, however, it is a book about how a city comes to be.
The most striking of Redhill’s narrative choices in this novel comes from its use of dual perspectives. In the main story, set in 1997, the novel traces the adventures of a group of characters centred around the “forensic archaeologist” David Hollis, as they race to find evidence of a sunken ship buried by the lakeshore — a ship that may contain a full photographic panorama of the city as it was in 1857 — before it is buried forever under a new layer of concrete and construction. Intermixed within this story is another: that of Toronto in the 1850s, featuring beautiful plates of period photographs no less, following the life of J.G. Hallam, a failed apothecary who turns to photography in a last-ditch effort to salvage his business, and whose photographs are the target of Hollis’ search.
Redhill’s narrative is exciting because its attitude seems completely backwards. Ironically, on one hand Toronto in the 19th century seems like exactly the sort of dynamic place in which a new immigrant can found a business, abandon it for a new technology, and find success, while on the other the Toronto of the 20th century seems static: the roads are where they are, the shoreline is no longer expanding, and historical discoveries are made at the very moment concrete covers them like a lake. In this juxtaposition, Redhill seems to the suggest that this city was once a place where passion was rewarded, but has become a place where it is merely tolerated.
What does not seem to have changed, in Redhill’s vision of Toronto, is the generosity of its people. The city may well once have been, as Hallam describes it, “a luck-deprived place” in which “men like myself armed commonly with expertise and hope, have not been able to overcome the difficulties to be found here.” And yet Hallam himself, by this point, has actively begun a new business by first befriending, and then extending charity towards, his two companions, both of whom he cares for emotionally, socially, and financially, to the point of even making arrangements for his own absence. If Toronto was once a “difficult” city, and even if some consider it to be one today, the reality of the matter is that in Consolation Toronto is shown to have always been a city that rewards community-building.
Near the end of Consolation, Redhill depicts Hallam in a dream:
He was looking down on Toronto. It was Toronto, but it was not the place he was living in, not the place he was dreaming. It was full of marvellous conveyances — train cars that moves on macadam all by themselves and towering buildings clad in class. And people, a shocking number of people.
Against this blurring of past and present, Hollis’ story, in which the ability to touch the past is said to prove it truly existed, becomes more poignant. And yet regardless of the extent to which the past can still be seen, Redhill reminds us that Toronto is a city of wonder.
Born in Baltimore, MD, Michael Redhill is a Canadian poet, playwright and novelist. He is the publisher of Brick, and author of the short story collection Fidelity, the poetry collections Asphodel and Light Crossing, four plays, the most recent of which, Goodness, won the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh award in 2006, and the novel Martin Sloane, a finalist for the Giller Prize.