Consolation by Michael Redhill is a complex novel set in Toronto, both past and present. Masterfully written, the story has a strong sense of place and possesses a fluid concept of time, its elements unfolding like in a mystery. The overall arc of the narrative lacks cohesion, however, which keeps it from being the slam-dunk triumph it could have been.
When we meet protagonist John Lewis, he is engaged to Bridget Hollis, daughter of Professor David Hollis, a renowned forensic archaeologist. John was orphaned and raised by an aunt and uncle who could not treat him as their own child, leaving him unprepared for involvement in his fiance's family. He also is drifting in his career. He earned a degree in accounting, even though he had no interest in the subject, and now his job, such as it is, is doing research for a playwright with writer's block.
Early in the book, the Hollis family tries to deal with David's newly-received diagnosis of ALS. Bridget and her mother Marianne are are neither calm nor understanding, and, as David struggles with his worsening symptoms, mother and daughter become overly protective. David rebels against being so constrained, and John, whom David loves, supports him instead of trying to wrap him in bubble wrap to keep him alive.
David is a lover of history who believes it is a sin that modern people do not care about their heritage. In his last academic act, he wrote a book about a ship that went down in Lake Ontario near shore in the late 1850's carrying the original glass plates of a complete photographic history of Toronto at the time. He believed the ship became land fill and lies buried on the spot the city is excavating for a new sports arena. His colleagues at the university were interested his thesis, but when David refused to produce the diary on which his book is based, he became a laughingstock, and his concerns had no impact the plans for the arena.
The main action of the book takes place after David's death. As they watch the arena excavation and wait, John tries desperately to help Bridget and Marianne as he promised David he would. Interspersed among the episodes in the present is the story of Jem Hallam, an apothecary who arrived in Toronto in the 1850's. We follow Hallam's experiences in the rough, nascent city and begin to wonder if this is the man who wrote the diary David used for his book.
Consolation is beautifully written and makes many astute observations that I admire greatly. The historical story of Jem Hallam is absorbing and comes to a surprising conclusion. The modern story of John and the Hollis family is less than satisfying, however. Told mostly from John's point of view, it is filled with interesting thoughts but lacks the focus of the historical story. David is the most sympathetic figure, but we never really get inside his head. John is described as decent, which he appears to be, but his aimlessness infects the narrative. The Hollis women are portrayed in mostly unsympathetic ways. They are headstrong and touchy and they never really "get" John. Their confrontations with him feel staged and theatrical.
Be that as it may, Consolation is still an interesting and worthwhile read. If you already know the city of Toronto, you will come to see it in a different light. And if you have never been there, you will fell like you have been.
Cross-posted to Blogcritics.