Michael Redhill’s Consolation
They die – the dead return not – Misery
Sits near an open grave and calls them over,
A Youth with hoary hair and haggard eye –
They are the names of kindred, friend and lover
Which he so feebly called – they all are gone!
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
“Preserve your memories”, the song says, “they’re all that’s left you”. Michael Redhill’s Consolation is about precisely that struggle: the fight to redeem the past, hold on to the dead, keep the image of our loved ones fresh in our minds. It is a novel about the terrible tug-of-war between human memory and the forgetful earth, about the extremes to which our hunger for what has been lost will take us, how it will make us scratch about in the dirt for the smallest crumb of what once was.
At the story’s heart is David Hollis – a man who has made delving into the memory of the earth a science. He is the founder of a new field he calls ‘forensic geology’ and has spent his life unearthing and rediscovering the urban past by digging for it under the cities of today. As the book opens, however, we find him suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and some four pages later he has killed himself. He leaves behind him, however, a final provocative work – a monograph in which he claims (based on no evidence other than a journal that no one but he has ever seen) that buried in the heart of Toronto lies an old boat, inside which is a collection of old glass negatives that contain a complete photographic record of the city as it was in the mid-1850’s. This claim – which made him a laughingstock among his fellow scholars in the last years of his life – can now be put to test, because a new sporting arena is being built on the site where the ship is supposed to lie, and if the ship is, in fact, where Hollis claims it should be, it will appear when the foundation for the new building is dug.
It is at the mouth of this controversy, on the brink of this building-site that is also a kind of open grave, that Hollis’s surviving family – his wife Marianne, his daughter Bridget and his son-in-law-to-be John (a mysterious, almost spectral figure, whose haunting presence will become, despite all appearances, the center of the book) – wage the battle of grief, love, betrayal and one-upmanship that is the subject of Redhill’s book. Frantic with the loss of the central figure in their lives, the Hollis family turn David’s theory into an obsession, until the recovery of those negatives becomes a way of restoring a dead father and husband, a way of bringing him back, however temporarily, from the dead.
Interspersed with this main story is a second one – the story of the man who made the negatives that the Hollis family now seeks. He is Jem Hallam, a young English apothecary, who has been sent to the colonial outpost of Toronto to set up the family business there, and finds himself trapped in a miserable and lonely world, surrounded by the mists of despair and hopelessness. When his pharmacy fails, Hallam will turn, literally, to the light – he will enter the photography business, forming new and unthinkable friendships, and becoming, in his own way, a new man. This narrative, of a man trying desperately to survive in a new and inhospitable world, while continuing to cling to the memory and manners of his old life, runs parallel to the story of the Hollis family; Hallam’s dislocation in space and his striving towards the future becoming a counterpoint to the Hollis’s displacement in time and mortality, and their yearning for the past.
It’s an interesting basis for a novel, and a not unpromising storyline, but it’s one that Redhill never quite delivers on. Hallam’s life in nineteenth century Toronto is sketched with great care and skill, as is the emotional turmoil of the Hollises in our own time, but the two are patched together sketchily, and neither, in consequence, comes fully to life. It’s as if Redhill’s prose itself is sluggish with the impossibility of the task his protagonists are taking on, the terrible weight of trying to hold on to something, bring something to life, when it is already lost. We are never really drawn into the feelings of these protagonists, who remain at one remove, intriguing characters in a pleasant story, but very little more. This sense of distance is made worse, I think, by the constant movement back and forth between time periods, which means that barely have we started to gain momentum on one story before we’re plunged into the other. It’s like watching Terms of Endearment and The Story of Adele H. on two different channels at the same time, and switching every fifteen minutes between the two. The interconnection between the past and the present is interesting, of course, but it’s been done before, and to my mind far more effectively: by A.S. Byatt in Possession and Graham Swift in Ever After, to name just two.
Overall, then, too much about this book feels old and a little stale. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s written with a great deal of skill – it’s just that it’s unsurprising. And when Redhill does eventually make a few last minute efforts to pick up the pace and throw in a few tricks, that only makes the pace of the book seem more uneven, and underlines the weakness of Redhill’s tone. It’s a harsh thing to say, given the yearning to remember and be remembered that is its central theme, but this is a forgettable book – you won’t be disappointed if you do read it, but you won’t have missed much if you don’t.