The death of a prominent but scandalized scholar prompts a search for a photographic record of early Toronto in Redhill’s second novel (Martin Sloane, 2002), in which narrative leaps between the 19th and 20th centuries.
When David Hollis, wracked by Lou Gehrig’s disease, committed suicide in the summer of 1997, he left behind a broken reputation. Shortly before dying, the “forensic geologist” authored a monograph claiming that a ship buried in the heart of downtown Toronto contained photographs of the entire city in the 1850s, but his refusal to show the diary he cited as evidence sparked accusations that he made up the whole thing. Hoping to rescue his honor, his grieving widow, Marianne, takes up residence in a hotel room overlooking the parcel of land where the photos are allegedly buried—and where a sports stadium is about to be built. High-strung and contentious, she regularly does battle with John, her daughter’s fiancé, the sole person who knows about her vigil. The book alternates between Marianne’s story and that of Jem Hallam, a pharmacist who moves to Toronto from England in 1855; after Hallam’s attempt to run an apothecary nearly bankrupts him (it turns out he purchased the shop from a man who accidentally caused three people to overdose), he becomes one of the city’s earliest and most prolific photographers. The Hallam sections feature the novel’s best-drawn characters, including Samuel Ennis, the entrepreneurial but ailing man who introduces Jem to the photo trade, and Claudia Rowe, a down-on-her-luck widow who becomes his assistant. Redhill’s descriptions of early Toronto are warmly romantic while still capturing a hard-bitten frontier-times attitude. The modern-day portions of the book are weaker by comparison—Marianne and John are relatively undernourished characters who often behave in ways that drive the plot but feel unnatural, which makes the concluding revelations feel underwhelming.
Not a failure—it’s a worthy successor to Richard Powers’s similarly time-shifting novel, Gain—but its seams occasionally show.