By Michael Redhill
Little, Brown, 340 pp., $24.99
Autumn dusk is "a failing in the West." And here is the bleak rigor of Toronto's interminable winters: "It was really February -- that month of wet lungs and bird-choking fog -- that November's desolation looked forward to. They were bookends, these two months, one buried in a dead year that said abandon hope , and the other in a fresh one that said what hope?"
Michael Redhill is a rising Canadian writer whose work begins to suggest the artful human complexities of Alice Munro, though with a faint surround of magic realism. Magic, that is, simply as the hallucinatory gaps and disconnects, the uncanny sorties, that subvert any true realism. The Toronto weather in his subtle and complex novel "Consolation " is not just meteorology or mood: It is a ghost, a witch, an agitation of the spirit. And so is Toronto's history. For Redhill, place and past cast votes in the jostling conclave that makes up any individual character.
"Consolation," whose presiding spirit is David, an urban geologist, excavates layers of time. At the start his widow , Marianne ; his daughter , Bridget ; and her fiance , John , are living in the shadow of his recent suicide. Suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease and the scorn of his academic colleagues, David jumped from a Lake Ontario ferry and drowned.
The scorn arose from his claim to have found -- and his refusal to produce -- the notebooks of a 19th-century photographer listing a complete photographic record of Toronto in the 1850 s , and the loss of the plates in a capsized ferry at a site now covered with landfill. David's refusal appears by turns quixotic, mystical , and plain pig-headed. "Proof lacks the power of conviction," he'd insisted.
With his papers and clippings, Marianne moves into a hotel with a view of the site he'd designated, and of the excavations being carried out for an arena. There, to the outrage of Bridget, she conducts a seemingly mad protest vigil, broken by visits from John , who seeks to act as wind-baffle between two family storm systems. Redhill does the storms with exquisite grief and wit, while John, deprecating his passivity -- "he felt he was . . . a conduit through which a force could travel but not remain " -- acquires towering importance.
In part it is because Redhill knows that the actor who listens silently upstages the actor who declaims. Partly it is because as John is revealed we discover his burden. He was privy to the secret of David's silence, and when he tells it to Marianne and Bridget we get an astonishingly conceived sequence of disbelief, outrage , and reconciled enlightenment.
There was no notebook, and such are the complex reverberations and detours of "Consolation" that the secret, disclosed, magnifies David's vision instead of discrediting it. Conviction can, prophetically, be more than proof. Redhill's thesis is so richly dramatized that it overcomes paradox. His Toronto, epitome of raw, pragmatic expansion, is disconnected from itself for lack of respect for its past. Marianne cites her dead husband: "He thought modern people were the loneliest people in the history of the world. And the thought that another time was under the one we live in was moving to him. Because it's a kind of company for us, all of us marooned here in the present."
The theme resounds throughout the twists that follow. The bulldozers strike a buried ship; the construction crews halt their work , then, after legal maneuvering, fill the excavation with foundation concrete. There is nothing to show that an archival treasure was -- or was not -- there; ambiguity and a haunting lament for memory remain.
All along, Redhill has endowed his story with a protracted fictional echo. It imagines the 19th-century photographer and gives him a struggling life of his own in Toronto. Hallam is his name. Befriending a photographer, he learns the craft, sets up a partnership with him and Claudia, a former model, and prospers modestly. At her instigation they make a complete record of the city, and he takes it to London to show to a commission formed to decide on a capital for Canada.
What happens remains untold: It is all part of a novel that John begins to write and has not finished. We do not know whether he will have Hallam return, whether the plates will be lost, whether Hallam will admit to his love for the vital, startlingly discerning Claudia (someone on whom, like John, like Redhill -- Henry James floats by here -- nothing is lost).
In his growth out of indecisiveness, still to be completed, Hallam reflects his creator's swelling conviction, learned from David, that memory is a battle that may be lost but will certainly lose those who fail to wage it.
Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.