Recommended Reading


Michael Redhill

Doubleday Canada 2006
469 pp. 32.95


I found this novel on the shelves in Sam’s Place, a used bookstore and café, supported by Mennonites and where Rhubarb launched its Theatre issue in October. A lucky find for six dollars. I enjoyed Redhill’s Martin Sloane, which won the Commonwealth First Novel prize and was a worthy finalist for the Giller. Redhill is a publisher and one of the editors at Brick, andhas published four books of poetry. His  play Building Jerusalem won the 2000 Dora Award  for Outstanding New  Play and nominated for a Governor General’s Award for Drama.

Like colleague Michael Ondaatje in In the Skin of a Lion, Redhill tells a story of Toronto, once upon a time, through the lens of contemporary Torontonians. The novel begins with the suicide of Professor David Hollis, hastening his end from Lou Gehrig’s disease.  The frame of the novel in contemporary time is the subsequent grieving of David’s wife Marianne, her daughter Bridget and her fiancé John, their relationship strained to the breaking point by her father’s suicide.


David Hollis had been building a case locating the shipwreck of a lake steamer that was carrying a comprehensive photographic documentation of Toronto in the 1850s, much to the scepticism amusement of his colleagues and the consternation of his family, work he was not able to finish before he died.


Redhill uses the story within a story structure well. The inside story goes back to the time when those first early photographs on glass were taken by  J.G. Hallam who had been sent to Canada to establish an apothecary business, rescued from failure by an opium taking photographer named Ennis, and his sketchy sidekick Claudia Rowe. The straitlaced Hallum agrees to take Claudia on as a third partner, rescuing her in turn. The laces never come off since Hallam has a wife and children back in England though Claudia questions his devotion to a family he no longer knows or know him. This is one of the key conflicts, will they or won’t they? which reads fresher than seen in movies or tv dramas.


While both stories well hold a reader’s interest I would have preferred to see a little more told about the contemporary characters, as it is their consolation at the centre of the novel. Not that the novel need to be any longer, though it could have been to include more of the contemporary story. I would have been happy to have a little less of Hallam, Ennis, and Claudia Rowe. The characters are well drawn, and somewhat unusually with the exception of one or two secondary characters, likable. They’re interesting without sex or violence, as Redhill recounts good men and women behaving well.


The dialogue is crisp, and used modestly and effectively in a novel full of vivid description and free indirect discourse. A highly readable document mythologizing Toronto. I think this is a good thing and I wish there were more novels set in Winnipeg, like the last half of David Bergen’s The Age of Hope, Margaret Sweatman’s Fox or Carol Shields’ Republic of Love. Adele Wiseman and John Marlyn did a good job back in the day, but there are a lot of untold stories of Winnipeg and its denizens waiting to be excavated and brought into literature.



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