Historical fiction can be a problematic genre. Either the historical component is so overwhelming that readers are left wondering why they didn't start with pure history to begin with; or the fictional element preponderates, in which case 'history' becomes something of a prop, a convenient series of events and fashions that serve as a mere backdrop to the author's more pressing concerns. In his novel, Consolation, Michael Redhill avoids these pitfalls; true, he confronts us with a fictional recreation of Victorian Toronto, but at the same time he attempts to elucidate the relevance of the past to populations in the present.
Consolation moves back and forth in time, but consists of two essential, parallel narratives. The first is set in the late 1990s and is centered round the family of David Hollis, who has committed suicide in the final stages of Lou Gehrig's disease. Before his death David, a forensic geologist, presented a monograph, arguing that a Victorian ship, the Commodore Walker, went down in a storm in old Toronto harbour and is buried beneath a tract of earth on which a sports arena is being constructed. In addition to the ship, David reasoned, is a trunk containing a photographic study of Toronto in 1856. The monograph has been greeted with professional derision, and, as a tribute to her departed husband (whose views she questioned too), Marianne Hollis has moved into a hotel that affords her a view of the arena's building site. She is joined by her daughter's fiancé, John Lewis, who is trying to bring the quarrelling family together (mother and daughter have never gotten along). The Commodore Walker is found, and David is vindicated, but the construction company is intent on paving the discovery over.
In the second narrative, we read of English apothecary J.G. Hallam's struggle to establish himself in Victorian Toronto. After his business fails, Hallam meets one Samuel Ennis, a colourful Irishman and professional photographer. The two enter into a business contract, and are later joined by Claudia Rowe, who is impoverished because she cannot collect her husband's life insurance; he has gone missing and is presumed dead. Claudia asks Hallam to let her share his cramped lodgings, a difficult (albeit innocent) arrangement since Hallam has a wife and children back in England. Eventually Hallam and Rowe take over Ennis's business, and are commissioned to create a photographic record of Toronto that is to be presented to a governmental committee back in London. Needless to say, it is this record that winds up sinking with the Commodore Walker on Hallam's return from England.
One cannot discuss Consolation without dwelling on Redhill's treatment of the past. The recreation of 19th century fashion, language, mannerisms, and Torontonian geography is both meticulous and convincing. Again and again Redhill takes us on a tour of old Toronto (Rossin House, Tinning's Wharf, Bishop Strachan's Palace, the American Hotel) and strews his narrative with objects from Victorian times (a keepsake box, a pill tile, a greatcoat 'flapping open like two black wings'). When Hallam prepares his apothecary wares, or studies the ins and outs of early photography, the processes are conveyed clearly and unobtrusively, with a confident (and unselfconscious) appreciation of the techniques involved.
More to the point, Hallam, Ennis and Claudia are characters with a Victorian set of values (or lack thereof), and motivations that never strike the reader as anachronistic. In answer to John's surmise that people 'back then' shared our own modern preoccupations, David answers reflectively, "Maybe it's a mistake to think they were like us. We have no idea, really. What they were like when they were alone, how their shoes felt on their feet. How food tasted to them. No one cares about this. They want a list of wars and casualties, big numbers, historical roll call." Redhill wisely presents us with both possibilities, that this earlier population was both similar to and different from us, and the differences are treated with the reverence they deserve.
Redhill's preoccupation with the past ties in neatly with a second obsession: the hidden reality that lurks beneath surfaces we interpret far too hastily. As a forensic geologist, David Hollis is keenly aware that the broken bottles and eroded bricks that lie beneath the streets of Toronto are a reflection of the flesh and blood people who populated the city in times past. A car wash can rest atop the city's first parliament, a pedestrian bridgeway can mark the start of a former necropolis, and a post office building, supported by a hundred years of landfill, can obscure a shipwreck in the city's first harbour. The new can supplant the old, but this process does not alter the fact that the old once existed and possesses meaning in its own right.
In a similar fashion, humans are not what their surface appearances suggest. John thinks he loves Bridget, but discovers hidden deficiencies that gradually alienate his affections. Marianne, too, underestimates John's motivation and only grasps his true capabilities after repeated exposure to his personality. Hallam's initial failure is twofold: he judges both Ennis and Claudia far too quickly—the latter because he discovers her posing naked for the Irishman—but eventually grasps how little justice he has done to their less visible, 'subterranean' qualities. It would appear that the characters who prove most 'consolable' are those who come to appreciate the reserves (whether they are urban or human) that are not immediately apparent to the spectator's eye.
If the novel betrays any weakness, it is in the imbalance between its two narrative strands. The story of Hallam's efforts in the nascent city is both direct and powerful. His yearning for his family in England, his paralysis in the face of bankruptcy, his disgust and simultaneous attraction to his new surroundings—the city's squalor and discomforts leap off the page—and his eventual friendship with Ennis and Claudia are coherent elements, all of them, and lay the foundations of a satisfying story. The characters in the modern segment, on the other hand, are somewhat shrill and difficult at times to decipher. Why is Bridget so removed from her mother, and why is she indifferent to her father's work? Why is Marianne so unpleasant, even when one factors in her grief for her husband? Her conversational sparring with John is seemingly endless, yet we never really know what is fuelling her frustration. Perhaps the problem lies with the lynch-pin of the modern tale: the wreck of the Commodore Walker is a necessary plot device, but readers will probably not be biting their nails to discover whether David is proven correct and the ship is indeed buried in the construction site.
These weaknesses are easily excusable, however. Redhill has not invested too much of his tale in the question of the ship's discovery and, more important, he salvages our interest with his inquiry into our relationship with the past. We are, in the final analysis, as ephemeral as the populations that preceded us. "The whole place erases itself every day, it kills itself, Bridget . . . do you understand?" John explains to his fiancé, "It gets wiped clean like a hotel room. When your mother leaves the Harbour Light, they'll vacuum up every molecule she's left behind, and the next person who comes by won't ever know she was there."
On completing Consolation, the reader will find it impossible to walk the streets of downtown Toronto and not dwell upon the lives that once unfolded below. And possibly it is this invocation of the past that serves as the ultimate source of all human consolation. •
Nicholas Maes's novel, Dead Man's Float, has recently been published with Véhicule Press.