Michael Redhill’s second novel Consolation has been longlisted for the Booker Prize but, like Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, as far as I can tell it was not reviewed in any of the national newspapers when it came out. So did they once again miss out on a great thing? And should we be grateful to the Booker judges for bringing it to our attention?
The answer for me, perhaps unhelpfully, is yes and no. The most notable feature to me was that Consolation read very much like the work of another Michael: Cunningham, author of The Hours and Specimen Days. I wouldn’t say the likeness was so uncanny that I kept flipping back to the front cover to double check; but it shared his intricate care for interior life, his bold juxtaposition of different worlds, and – frankly – his tendency toward gloomy characters.
The gloomy characters in Consolation are in the present day, or at least in 1997, in Toronto. David Hollis teaches something called forensic geology and batters his wife Marianne, daughter Bridget and her fiancé John with his interest in a particular case. He believes that the site of a new sports stadium in the city hides some sunken photographic records of Toronto when it was a new city in the 1850s. But David is dying, of a wasting disease (standing up, “everything shook as he did it, his spine and legs a tower of teacups”), and it looks as though his family will be left to deal with the developers.
The parallel story is of where these missing records came from: J.G. Hallam comes to Canada from England in 1855 to make his fortune as a chemist, but finds business difficult. There are gripping scenes, such as those between Hallam and his rival apothecaries, the Cockburn family, and his initial dealings with a photographer called Samuel Ennis who will play a large part in his life. It was because of this that I began to drum my heels in merriment every time we returned to the 19th century scenes, and to stamp my feet in frustration when these characters were offstage.
All of this is buoyed up by some tremendously vivid writing. Here is a suicide:
When they cut him down the blood had pooled in his feet and frozen solid and his leather shoes had burst from the pressure like overripe gourds.
Or the interior of the Cockburns’ successful business:
The inside of the shop was clean and bright, as if the sun had twisted past all celestial obstacles just to find this one little place.
Which is not to say that the modern day scenes are not well-written too: the ‘tower of teacups’ line quoted above is so perfect that I suspect will stay with me forever, and even lesser observations are beautifully done, like the container for David’s pills which when full “sounded like an African rainstick.” But much of the writing in the modern sections is given over to inter-family bickering and recriminations, so much so that eventually I lost all interest in whether they stopped the stadium being built or not. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t contain nuggets of truth:
When had this talent for taking everything the wrong way emerged in her? … He reran the conversation in his mind, trying to find the one place in it where he could have turned, where he would have made her happy, where she’d have been comforted. But he could not find it.
Consolation then really is a book of two halves, which I found in equal parts delightful and frustrating. Its portrait of the settler’s difficulty, of finding our way forward by trial and error, is exemplary. And not incidentally, the hardback is bound in floppy paper which sits open on the table without having to hold the pages down with your hands. Well, these things matter when you’re nearing the end of a Bookerthon…