Doubleday Canada, 2001
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
The premise of Martin Sloane, Toronto editor, poet, playwright, and now novelist Michael Redhill’s astounding first novel, is deceptively simple — young girl meets older man, tender, funny courtship ensues, love blossoms, conflict looms in the form of young girl’s beautiful best-friend, lines of tension are revealed, love affair ends, feelings of rejection and loss must be dealt with, life goes on – an old, old, story. The author’s triumph is to have taken this threadbare framework, and fashioned upon it a riveting, mysterious, evocative and thoroughly individual and unforgettable tale.
One night, Martin Sloane of the title, a renowned Irish-Canadian artist, justly famous for his beautiful, but enigmatic box constructions, vanishes from the bed of his young lover, Jolene Iolas. The departure occurs suddenly, apparently without warning, and she never sees him again. This pivotal moment in Jolene’s life forms the nucleus of the story – all things leading either to it or away from it. It is in her examination of the before and after, in her search for clues, understanding and meaning, that the trajectory of the narrative resides.
Jolene’s review of their early days together reveals a warm and gentle love story, unfolding quietly between two mildly quirky people. Trouble arrives in the form of Molly, Jolene’s vaguely tragic, very beautiful best friend from college days, who has come for a day’s visit and to meet Martin for the first time. Reliving that day in her memory, Jolene recognizes a certain “wrongness,” an undercurrent of tension, a whiff of betrayal, the source or which she can’t quite identify. Something occurred between Martin and Molly, but what exactly? Nothing blatant, nothing undeniable. Uncertain, she bowed to the conventions of friendship and love, bestowing the benefit of the doubt on both her friend and partner. By next morning, Martin was gone.
Even moderately cynical readers will, of course, leap to the conclusion that Martin ran off with Molly, but this is, in fact, not the case. Nevertheless, Molly, also, immediately and quite brutally, cuts her ties with her old friend, leaving Jolene doubly abandoned. Missing person reports prove fruitless; Martin has really and truly vanished. Attempts to reach out to Molly are rebuffed. A devastated Jolene is forced to move on with her life.
End of story, one might think, but, nearly a decade later, Jolene suddenly receives word from Molly, in their first communication since the time of Martin’s disappearance, that Martin’s art works have begun to appear again in Ireland, and that Molly wants Jolene to join her there in an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery. An edgy re-reunion of the old friends ensues, and together, they set out in search of answers.
Clearly meant to represent important emotional touchstones in his life, Martin’s boxes are things of extraordinary beauty and subtlety, riven, as is the story itself, with images of loss, deception, and hidden things. Inspired by the work of real American artist Joseph Cornell*, the boxes were designed, as Martin once explained to Jolene, to manipulate one’s emotions through visual impact, in the same way that music does with sound. It’s a testament to Redhill’s skill as a writer that, on the basis of verbal description alone, they are entirely successful.
Superficially spare, Redhill’s prose, with its recurring images and multiple layers of association, works on a similar, visceral level. Reading it you are aware of little tugs in your subconscious, of things being shifted and rearranged, of subliminal connections forming and a sense that conscious meaning could break through at any moment, yet you can never specifically identify the source or quite articulate the result. (One can’t help but speculate that his experience as a poet has had a positive influence here.) The cumulative effect is very right-brained and dreamlike. Too much of this sort of thing could easily result in an unsatisfyingly diffuse reading experience, but, thankfully, Redhill has the sense to hitch his star to a substantial wagon, and Jolene’s very real adventures provide the necessary, concretely human focus.
On one level, an intriguing and compelling mystery, this book will thoroughly disrupt your day-to-day living habits with its demands to be read. Pages must be turned; sleep will be missed. The story, however, pushes beyond the confines of the standard psychological mystery, to explore, seriously, some essential human concerns – our need for connection, validation, and witness, our tendency to seek (or even demand) these things in love, our inability to truly know another person, the acceptance of time, and the infinitesimal bit of it that is our allotment, the shocking possibility that the universe may hold no special plan for us, and that our lives may be insignificant and meaningless – in short, that whole darn existential dilemma. As result of her experiences with Martin, Jolene comes eventually to believe that “love is not a home.” Her faith in love lost, she is left with no rebuttal for the angst of individual existence, just one more isolated soul adrift in the space-time continuum.
It’s a strangely satisfying, if not precisely happy ending. The most sturdily optimistic readers, however, might glean a shred of comfort from the fact that, wherever his corporeal body, something of Martin’s soul came to reside in his boxes, and as Molly comments early in the story, “it’s not a bad place for a person’s soul to end up.”
* You can view Cornell’s work at: http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/cornell_joseph.html