No-one was more surprised at Consolation‘s Booker longlisting than its Canadian author. On the day of the longlist announcement, Michael Redhill was incommunicado, settling into his new home in France. He first realised that “something had happened” once he got his internet connection working and started to receive hundreds of congratulatory emails.
Since then Redhill has described his novel Consolation as “on its horse riding off into the sunset with spear wounds in its side”. Ignoring the Canadian critics displeasure, the Booker judges chose to rein in the horse and turn it around. Why?
History is a common thread running through a number of this year’s longlistees: historical friendships (A N Wilson’s Winnie and Wolf); the second world war (Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl), the resonance of historical events into the present (Nicola Barker’s Darkmans). Redhill’s novel is concerned with how the present, in its rush towards the future, is in danger of destroying valuable historical record.
Canada is a young country and Toronto, founded 1793, a mere baby by European standards. Speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival last week, Redhill compared Toronto to an adolescent, constantly worrying about its image and reacting to negative criticism. In its haste to become world-class, Toronto is busy tearing down the old to build the new, cavalierly destroying its history in the process. There is no reflection on whether that historical record may prove to be important in the future. Redhill hopes his novel will serve as a warning light to the city authorities.
The novel is formed by the interweaving of two narratives. The first follows the family of Professor David Hollis, who maintains that a chest containing a valuable photographic record of Toronto lies buried in a site earmarked for the construction of a new sports stadium. Yet Hollis is suffering from debilitation caused by a degenerative disease and his colleagues deride his theory as the delusion of a madman. After Hollis commits suicide, his family seek consolation by continuing his work in an effort to vindicate his professional reputation.
The second narrative takes us back to the early years of Toronto, its “wild west” years. Jem Hallam has migrated from England and seeks to establish a business and an income in order to bring his family over to join him. However, this isn’t a land of gold and Hallam’s existence is harsh, incredibly so at times. A man of principle he is gradually forced to concede one after the other in order to survive and form a family of sorts with a couple of fellow immigrants: the bitter and lonely photographer, Samuel Ellis, and the widow and 19th-century glamour model, Claudia.
Redhill writes smoothly and beautifully and there are many touching scenes – particularly those involving the dying. There are obvious parallels in the historical and contemporary characters, who are sympathetically drawn though not always sympathetic. The relationships within each group are complex and the consolations sought and received subtle in nature. It must be said though that the historical narrative is by far the most entertaining. The thematic link is provided by the photographs Hollis claims to have found and Hallam claims to have taken. This is quite appropriate given that the novel germinated from an actual series of photographs of Toronto taken in 1856, shot to bolster its bid to become capital of a united Canada. (A bid it lost.) As to whether the photographs in the novel actually exist, is for the reader to discover.
And what about the portrait Redhill paints of the two Torontos, both past and present? Here’s Claudia and Hallam discussing some shots Hallam has sent home to his family:
“They’re beautiful,” she said, her voice almost a murmur. “They must have loved them very much.”“They’re a lie.”She looked over the edge of one of the plates at him.“If we do what you suggest,” he said, “I want to photograph the city as it is. Not as an advertisement for emigration.”
Which is exactly what Redhill has done and the unflattering, sometimes ambivalent depiction of the city goes a long way to explaining why the novel isn’t so popular with the Canadian audience.
P.S Maybe the Booker longlisting has turned the horse around even in Canada. Redhill was awarded the Toronto Book Award 2007 0n 5/9/2007.