by Michael Redhill
Published by Doubleday Canada
280 pages, 2001
Chronicle of Loss
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Poet and playwright Michael Redhill has written an intricate, mysterious first novel which could be subtitled: The Man Who Wasn't There. Martin Sloane is a character conspicuous by his absence, never fully present even when he is around, then vanishing altogether by the end of the second chapter.
It's a strange thing to give top billing to a man who spends most of the drama offstage, but this is only the first of many kinks and twists in this subtle, sometimes frustrating book. Redhill's deep dramatic sense and superb ear for natural dialogue bring the story close. But then his penchant for teasing us along with a sort of bait-and-switch technique yanks it all back again. Like a silvery minnow, it slips through your fingers and disappears, making you wonder what you saw in the first place.
True to the enigma, the narrator isn't Martin Sloane but a woman named Jolene Iolas, reflecting back to a time in the mid-1980s when she was a young student in upstate New York. Visiting an art gallery in Toronto, she falls in love with the contents of a box:
The one I found hardest to turn from was a box on a pedestal, made of glass on all sides, which was filled with a viscous blue fibre draping down from the top. ... It was a mermaid. Her body hung limply curved, her hair draped on each side of her face, loosely falling into the depths, and her tail curving on the other. ... It was called "Sleep" and I was overcome with greed. I wanted it like nothing I had ever wanted before. It was like the way a lover hungers for the body of the one desired: I wanted no one else to ever see it again except for me.
When Jolene learns the artwork isn't for sale, she becomes obsessed with the idea of connecting with the artist, a 54-year-old Irish-Canadian named Martin Sloane. The two strike up a friendly, flirtatious correspondence which keeps Jolene in a state of euphoria, as if she has discovered a new drug: "I felt like someone who'd suddenly come into more money than she knew what to do with, except it's not easy to find a place to stash excess feeling."
When the inevitable happens and Martin comes to visit, Redhill avoids the cliché of the first sexual encounter between the artist and a virginal Jolene with a painful, yet comic scene. Martin innocently asks at the end of a long evening:
Did you want to go to bed?
The moment Jolene realizes he meant "go to bed" in the more mundane sense, she nearly disintegrates from embarrassment. But this is a book in which nothing is quite the way it seems. For one thing, Martin Sloane is a maddeningly slippery fish from the outset.
Though Jolene is ready to fling her heart away for good, Martin is so self-contained and absorbed in his strange art of box-making that the relationship is chronically lopsided. Martin visits Jolene at university often, stays for weeks at a time and even sets up a work shed which Jolene is forbidden to enter. But he insists on maintaining his residence in Toronto and refuses to let Jolene see it. Of course this spawns all sorts of speculation in the curious reader: A double life? Another woman? Drugs, alcohol, a criminal past, what?
An even stranger spin is added by Jolene's closest friend Molly, an attractive, intelligent young woman who is both compulsively promiscuous and devoid of real attachment. "I thought what I had with Martin inoculated me against disaster," Jolene observes, "or at least the kind of unfathomable loneliness Molly seemed to suffer from."
Molly has a rather creepy way of insinuating herself into the couple's life, even following Martin into the forbidden zone, the off-limits work shed. When Jolene finally sees it, she's taken aback at the obsessive sense of order in the place. Found objects, both natural and man-made, are regimented into little boxes of their own: "Upon opening the drawers for the first time, I had the impression of entire worlds labeled and laid out in white rows. The levels of organization stunned, and even frightened me."
What sort of man makes a living by putting things in boxes? All sorts of images come to mind: treasure chests, aquariums, cages, coffins. Too deeply infatuated for clear vision, Jolene can't or won't grasp the symbolism. But one night, after a particularly bizarre evening with Molly, Martin tells Jolene:
Flash-forward 15 years to the present day, and a very different Jolene, her life glued back together after the shattering event of Martin's sudden abandonment. She has moved to Toronto (an obsessive act in itself, as if she hoped to find him there) and settled into a reasonably contented life as a teacher.
When she receives a phone call from her old friend Molly after years of bitter estrangement, the thin veneer of her contentment cracks wide open. Molly claims she has seen Martin Sloane's artwork in a gallery in Dublin. Jolene immediately drops everything, including a serious new relationship, to join her. The rest of the book is a strange, convoluted detective story with twist after twist, as Molly and Jolene, uneasily reunited in their mutual obsession, try to make sense of the puzzle that is Martin Sloane.
This novel is less a love story than a chronicle of loss, of the inner emptiness that can drive someone to make a ferocious attachment to the wrong sort of person. It's about absence, not presence, which sometimes creates the impression of looking at the negative of a photograph, everything strangely reversed. The second half of the book weaves in a lot of detailed backstory about Martin Sloane's bleak Irish boyhood, in which he was abandoned by not one but both parents in turn. Jolene recalls her mother's murky accidental death, tainted with scandal and the horrific way her father shut down, dead in all but body.
A hollow space in the heart, unlike the hollow of an empty box, isn't just a hole but a vacuum, sucking voraciously at the surrounding elements (including people). No one can fulfill this sort of bottomless need, which is based in brokenness. And a crippled capacity to love renders people curiously blind to the unsuitability of a partner. Just who was the artist here? Was Martin Sloane really just Jolene's imaginary creation: her master artwork? Is that why he needed to flee?
Just when answers seem imminent, Redhill pulls his sleight-of-hand trick again and takes us in a completely different direction. How an author treats readers is important and here it's impossible to miss a touch of sadism. The result is dizzying, maddening but compulsively absorbing. It's the inverse of the conventional mystery story with its neat resolution of loose ends. Redhill's loose ends are raw as torn blood vessels, telling us that life is far too intricate for neat closure. The best Jolene can hope for is a glimmer of insight into her own complex, fractured, yet relentlessly healing soul. | August 2001
Margaret Gunning has reviewed many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.