Consolation – Notes and Photos – (Spoilers)
by Michael Redhill
2006 / 352 pages
rating: 8/ historical fiction
It’s way too soon for me to be opening another fairly heavy novel but … that’s the way the reading group schedules go. Due to be read by the 16th but I don’t think I’ll get there in time.
Supposed to be good, though and it’s started easily enough. The book opens with a couple of serious epitaphs:
The man who commits suicide remains int eh world of dreams.” Seven Nights, Jorge Luis Borges
In my solitude I
have seen things
That are not true.
“Proverbs,” Don Paterson
Then we get to a kind of unannounced Prologue in which an old man is taking a ferry through Toronto and remembering what he remembers. Then he has to take his pills -opiates – and takes more than twice the dose recommended, not unusual, but …
**Part 1 November of 1997
Marianne Hollis is living in an upper story of a downtown hotel in Toronto watching the excavation of the old post office site now getting ready for a new “unnecessary” hockey stadium. David Hollis, famous for his collection of historical Toronto photographs and a diary, may be dead, but his wife is keeping his legacy alive.
Backflash to a couple years prior when the typically dysfunctional family, including a fiancé discovers that David has Lou Gehrig’s disease. They all try to control the situation. Then back to today, Marianne in her hotel room reading David’s monograph for comfort. And back to when he first found the diary which has led to all the excitement in his little academic world of Toronto history. (How do we know?)
David Hollis is a cranky old man who knows what he wants and doesn’t want to take meds when he’s excited about something. Marianne remembers. And he wants to “pee like a man.” He’s still an independent cuss but fading like the signs he notes in his history lessons.
Part Two – Winter 1855-6
J.G Hallam, a chemist and newish arrival to Toronto has opened a pharmacy. He doesn’t like the winters and he misses his family in Camden Town, England. He writes to them a letter and takes pills for sleep.
But competition is severe and he’s laboring under several business handicaps until a photographer wanders in needing an ingredient whereupon Hallam becomes an “investor.” He also becomes a subject in a photo.
“Ragged fat sparrows had made their reappearance in the city and sat on fence posts.”
(A kind of symbolism here as there are other incidents of sparrows in the book.)
** Interesting if the “F.R. Lewis” (a chemist), mentioned here is related to the John Lewis, Bridget’s fiancé, in the first Part. (Turns out there’s no relation as far as the book mentions.)
** It’s good historical fiction generally, but I feel like the history has taken over a wee tad from the story. The stories are good – both the contemporary and the historical – but there’s more emphasis on street names and photographic processes and prices and food and weather and apothecary information in the historical sections than anything. I’ll bet this is fascinating to those who live in or love Toronto – I’ve only been there one time as a teenager. In the historical plot sections, the possibility of a scam is some nice foreshadowing to tantalize –
**Part Three – November 1997
The little chapters here are difficult – they go back and forth between prior to David’s death and afterwards with Marianne in the hotel not speaking to her daughter but being visited by her future son-in-law who was very close to David. John Lewis and Bridget live in Riverdale, near the Playters old “enclave.”
** There is a shine in the eyes of the folks getting photographed as well as in the eyes of David who is unwell and drugged. The lemons are “glowing unnaturally.” (I doubt if this means more than that the author was less than careful – see metaphors, below, but it’s strangely placed.)
John Lewis is visiting Marianne, David’s widow, in her hotel room – there are undertones of possible romance but nothing happens. A flugelhorn is found at the excavation site which Marianne continues to watch because David thought there was some kind of treasure at the site – a boat, photographs.
In the middle of the night the excavation crew finds a boat – just as David had said.
A difficult passage: : –
“The amount of attention he attracted was manifest in the way that people who lived on the south side of King Street, nearest his location, would put out their lamps early, in the hope that he would not stay away.” (p. 89)
I think it means that people put their lamps on and “outside” hoping he would come. All those double negatives plus the idiomatic “out” make the sentence difficult. Redhill’s use of pronouns is not always clear.
** Part 4 – Early Spring 1856
The historical story goes on – Hallam gets involved with Sam Ennis and Claudia Rowe a photographer and his model, supposedly widowed. Hallam is always thinking of possible scams on him. He writes letters home but never sends them. Another chemist threatens Hallam’s business, but Ennis convinces Hallam to invest in photographic chemicals instead. Rowe is virtually destitute. The sexual implications get too heavy and old. Some opium involved.
**Part 5 November 1997
The feud between Marianne and Bridget continues – Marianne watches the site, Bridget avoids her, John goes to see Marianne in the hotel regularly – no sex (mirror). He and Bridget fight. David was as close to a father as John had had. This is working like a double – negative/mirror – something. John is working for a writer – doing research.
Marianne attempts to stop the digging – John tags along and tries to convince her to give up.
*Another double – John doesn’t believe John’s tale, Marianne does now (why?) . Lots of this stuff going on. John grieves.
And a rather symbolic depiction of a sparrow:
“On one of these squares, they passed a sparrow lying on its back — it looked dead, but John thought he saw its beak yaw open. He stared at the bird, unsure if he’d seen correctly, and then startled when the hollow chest suddenly expanded in panic.” (p. 310)
Again on page 316 where John finishes the job:
He took a deep breath and stepped as heavily as he could bear to on the faint rise, the sound of a heart in a shirt, and he crushed it and hunched over, his eyes stinging, and vomited onto the clean surface of the white plaza. (p.317)
** Part 6 – summer 1856- winter 1857
From Ennis Hallam learns to photograph, takes pictures of people and of the city, Mrs. Rowe is very helpful. It’s now “Hallam, Ennis and Rowe Photographists.” They live together but without sexual contact. Hallam writes letters of how well he is doing in new business – includes photos. Start taking photos of children and outdoors and of buildings. There is one photo included in the book. They start taking photos of the whole town -present them to the mayor. Ennis dies. Hallam smokes opium to put into Ennis’s lungs by breathing it in. Hotel Rossin goes in – they photograph the city from the roof to show that Toronto can be capital – Hallam and Rowe have an argument about PR or reality. (Theme in book? – to capture making the subject look good or to look real?) Decided “they would make a panorama of the city in exactly thirteen exposures.” (p. 388) cont. below:
The Armstrong, Beere and Hime panorama is an almost complete panorama of the city of Toronto taken in 1856–1857 by the firm Armstrong, Beere and Hime. They are the earliest known photographs of the city of Toronto, and create an almost complete record of the city at that time. A fictionalized history of the photographs and their story plays a central role in Michael Redhill‘s Consolation.
They were created by the firm Armstrong, Beere and Hime under contract from the city of Toronto. In 1857 the British Colonial Office was deciding which city should be made the capital of The Canadas. As part of their bid, the city of Toronto elected to present a set of photographs of the city to the authorities in London. The city paid Armstrong, Beere and Hime £60 to create four copies of 25 pictures. The panoramic images were taken from the roof of the Rossin House Hotel, at the southeast corner of King and York streets.
Toronto’s bid to become the capital failed, and the photographs were lost and forgotten. They were rediscovered on October 9, 1979, when archivist Joan Schwartz located them when looking through records at the Colonial Office Library. Subsequently a second set of the pictures was found in Ottawa.
A set of modern duplicates, reproduced from copy negatives, was presented to the City of Toronto as a Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) gift from the British government in 1984. These are housed in the City of Toronto Archives.
Part 6 continued:
Hallam and Rowe have an argument about PR or reality. (Theme in book? – to capture making the subject look good or to look real?) Hallam is to take photos to London to show the Queen (or her aides). Sam Ennis is buried. Hallam leaves for London.
Part 7 – November 1997
The work at the site is halted, the evidence examined, the ship is too far down to be properly excavated. John tells Howard he drove David to the ferry (where David killed himself) and that he wrote the story David wanted to find in the ruins. Gives it to Howard to give to Marianne – leaves for London.
Themes – is the past real? Was it ever real? Do we want PR photos or reality? Which is true? Can we know? Reality and faith, fathers, age, suicide, grief, loss, community, love, fear. Apply all to history and the telling of history.
Literary – story within story, who is author, one story mirroring the other – usually appropriate metaphors and tropes dealing with excavation and photography.