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.
From the Hardcover edition.
READ AN EXCERPT
1. In an interview with Toronto Life, Michael Redhill said that he wrote Consolation out of love and anger. How do you see these two motivations at play in the novel?
2. Marianne says to John: “You make no choices. You allow yourself to be moved by other things. . . . You’re like powder...
“Redhill succeeds admirably, evoking the past in its every strangely familiar detail. Toronto is not the only city of whose history it might be said ‘a hint . . . is all we have.’ Consolation shows that, for the ready imagination, a hint may be all that is needed.” — The Gazette (Montreal)
“Tricky, absorbing. . . . The book is enlivened by lovely tropes for everything from the weather . . . to the oddly animated nature of landfill. . . . A novel whose preoccupations have been nurtured and earned. . . . In Consolation, Redhill proves himself ready to make the fateful nature of photography into a matter of collective destiny, for both a small grieving family and a vast incurious city.”–The New York Times Book Review
“Michael Redhill has written a gift to Toronto. The city, with its imperfect past and present, is central to Consolation, a beautiful work of fiction about life, love and land, and the way people cope with the loss of all three… a novel replete with stunning imagery, ambivalent accolades, true-to-life characters, dialogue that sounds utterly real and moments of literary brilliance…” — Winnipeg Free Press
“Consolation’s elegance, like Redhill’s many descriptions of old Toronto, is in its architecture, as it moves easily through two interrelated stories. . . . Redhill shows himself a masterful researcher and compiler of details — exactly the kind of writer you need to tell a story of yesterday.” — The Globe and Mail
“It may be deemed THE novel of Toronto…. Vital and fascinating… Redhill’s prose is fluid and evocative…. It may not always be the image city fathers could prefer, but it has a fine ring of truth.” — Edmonton Journal
“A beautiful and dreamy story, gorgeously written and movingly told, about the myriad ways the past lingers just below the surface of the present and inevitably shapes the future. It is the story of a family, but also the story of Toronto, a city that's constantly recreating itself and, in so doing, constantly shrugging off its awkward past…. Redhill's recreation of old Toronto is so vivid you can almost hear the rumble of carriage wheels on the cobblestones as you turn the pages.” — Calgary Herald
From the Hardcover edition.