September 25, 2007

Book review: "Consolation," by Michael Redhill

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By Michael Redhill
Little, Brown and Company / ISBN: 978-0-316-73498-1

Consolation, by Michael Redhill

As regular readers know, all this month I'm doing a special concentration here on the nominees for the 2007 Booker Prize, basically the British version of the Pulitzer (and a prize many think is actually more impressive than the Pulitzer); and it's no surprise that in general I've been disappointed by the nominated books I've now read, finding them on the whole to be too delicate, too inconsequential, too "Delightfully British" in the worst way possible. And thus do we come to the fourth Booker nominee to be reviewed here at CCLaP, Michael Redhill's Consolation; and surprisingly enough, this one I actually did enjoy quite a bit, and have been spending some time recently thinking about why that is. Partly, I suppose, that it's set in Canada, which is the least British and most American of all the British Commonwealth nations, which are the only countries eligible for the Booker; partly because it's not only Canadian, but specifically a love letter to the city of Toronto, and I'm a fan of literary love letters to big cities. Partly because of the intriguing dual storyline, I'm sure, one set in the modern age and one during Toronto's founding in the Victorian Age; partly because those storylines are filled with fascinating and complex characters, all of them interacting with a dual mystery at the heart of the plot. In any case, I'm happy to finally come across a Booker nominee I actually enjoyed; I was starting to think that maybe there was something wrong with me!

In essence a mystery story, Consolation tells the tale of eccentric historian David Hollis, who lives so fully in the past that he an actually walk around Toronto telling you who lived in random houses in the 1860s. Hollis has Lou Gehrig's Disease and is rapidly dying, but has decided to spend his remaining days pursuing an obscure theory he has formed -- that buried under the debris of Toronto's lakefront is a series of priceless artifacts concerning the city's history. See, like Chicago, turns out that Toronto created its own artificial shoreline in the early 20th century, with landfill literally being poured in around shipwrecks and the like; Hollis has become convinced that one of these shipwrecks contains a leather-covered lockbox full of rare glass photo negatives, surveying almost the entire city limits at a specific moment in the mid-1850s. Given that barely any documents from this period of the city's history exist, this would be a major find indeed; the problem, though, is that the theory is based on highly circumstantial evidence, not enough to convince a politician to spend the tax money on an urban archeological dig, leaving Hollis' theory still unproven at the time of his death.

Half of Consolation's story, then, is of the remaining Hollis family -- of the mother and daughter's conflicting reactions to the patriarch's controversial suicide, of the husband/son-in-law stuck in the middle, of a groundbreaking of a new sports arena that might finally provide an answer to the question once and for all. And all this is interesting enough, but then Redhill sets an entire half of the novel back in the 1850s as well, among the photographic crew responsible for those photos that might or might not still exist, painting a vivid historical picture of Toronto while also explaining the circumstances behind the photos themselves. It's this half that's the real treat for fans of historical fiction, like I am -- Redhill has quite a solid handle over this particular style of writing, and has created a complex tale here that is sure to be making Canadian librarians and historians pee in their pants as we speak. Packed into Consolation's Victorian half is a dense look at all the issues that made up the day; the different role pharmacists had back then, the perils of being a young unmarried female, the ongoing problem of runaway slaves from America in those days, the accidental discovery in those years of silver nitrate as a photographic medium, etc etc etc.

At the same time, though, the modern half of Consolation serves as a nice contemporary character study as well, which is what I think makes the book so intriguing -- that it's not just a historical thriller, not just a dysfunctional-family drama, but both at the same time, with both stories based on the same set of physical objects at their center. Neither story is outstanding on their own, even though both are technically solid; it's the combining of the two into one uberplot that is the real pleasure. And like I said, Consolation is not just a tight story with intriguing characters, but a real history lesson about Toronto as well; and by extension, of course, a look in general at the rise, fall, and re-rise of certain large cities in North America, showing how the tide of history (first the Industrial Age and then the Information one) had such a profound impact on how people in the Western world have chosen to live together over the course of the last 150 years.

I know that I've only made it through a third of this year's Booker nominees at this point, and that ones I'm undoubtedly going to like a lot are still on the wait list (for example, such as Nicola Baker's supposed genre-bending Darkmans, which I keep hearing I'm apparently going to love as soon as I can actually get my hands on it); that said, Consolation is so far my favorite of all the 2007 Booker nominees I've read, and the one I would vote for today if someone was to force me to vote today. I hope you're enjoying these Booker-nominee reviews, and do make sure to look for the next one tomorrow, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (the one many people consider this year's favorite).

Out of 10:
Story: 8.9
Characters: 8.5
Style: 7.3
Overall: 8.2

Read even more about Consolation: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:06 AM, September 25, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |