Michael Redhill told the Toronto Star he had only $411 in his bank account when he deposited the $100,000 cheque he received from the Scotiabank Giller Awards for winning the coveted prize for his novel, Bellevue Square, in mid-November.
Although he started his literary career as an obscure poet, Redhill is no stranger to Canadian, and even international, readers by now. Literary critics have taken notice of him, ever since his first novel, Martin Sloane, appeared in 2001, and his reputation has grown with each of the novels that have come since.
I loved Redhill’s 2006 book, Consolation, and gave it an enthusiastic review in these pages at the time. Consolation presented a grittily realistic portrait of 1850s Toronto that was “so well executed that it shines,” I wrote, as I put the book in such good company as Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of the Lion. Redhill, it seemed, was emerging as a chronicler of Toronto’s history par excellence.
Redhill fans have had to wait 11 long years for the next novel (Bellevue Square), but it turns out he’s been covertly churning out mystery novels in the meantime, under the pen name of Inger Ash Wolfe.
Published earlier this year, Bellevue Square marks Redhill’s return to the mainstream literary realm. The Giller, Canada’s most prestigious and lucrative literary prize, is as good a stamp of approval from the country’s literary cognoscenti and should ensure the novel a huge international readership.
In my opinion Bellevue Square is a reasonably good book, but not half as good as Consolation. It’s a complicated, Moebius strip of a novel and all of its energy draws inward, focusing on dysfunctionalism and dissolution.
Bellevue Square is a postmodern engagement with form and the question of the unreliable narrator. The story is told in the first person by Jean Mason, a bookseller and mother in Toronto’s Kensington Market, who becomes obsessed with trying to find her alleged doppleganger who hangs around the market’s Bellevue Square.
Mason becomes even more obsessed, even to the point of psychosis, after her double allegedly begins murdering people who have told Mason about her.
Redhill himself seems obsessed with playing the Nabokovian game of switched, mirrored and entangled identities, as when Ingrid Fox, Mason’s doppelganger, uses the pen name Inger Wolfe, the same as Redhill’s own pseudonym. Clever or droll?
How peculiar that, even at a point when Mason is unconscious, the narrative stream continues, oblivious to the rules of first-person narration. It’s as if the reader is hearing voices, which is probably what Redhill wants us to feel, as he lowers us ever more deeply into the maelstrom of Mason’s psychotic disorder. Those readers who approach Bellevue Square with the notion that what lies ahead is an orderly, slightly gothic psychological portrait, along the lines of Henry James’s masterful Washington Square, are in for a rude sur
prise: the title bears an oblique reference to Bellevue, the American mental hospital, and the only orderlies are those in white coats who roam the halls of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
As expected, Redhill is strong on sense of place and gives an excellent rendering of the ethnically and socially diverse population of Bellevue Square. There are also scenes in and around the square’s Kiever Shul, whose (fictitious) rabbi becomes part of the novel’s vibrant inner-city pastiche. Mason seems to function best in this world of strangers.
By contrast, her relations with her husband, Ian, and her children lack dynamism and precision, as though distilled through her increasingly foggy mental state. As Mason becomes ever less sure of herself, the reader, having followed her through the looking glass, is left questioning whether she may be just a figment of her doppelganger’s imagination.
It’s a shame, but I remained highly suspicious of Redhill’s protagonist throughout and could not suspend my disbelief long enough to take anything she said or did credibly. To me, Mason seemed unreliable right from the start. Whereas a figure like Pinocchio magically becomes a real boy at the end of his story, Mason becomes more of a wooden puppet that’s manipulated by the author, as her journey devolves into madness. The reader may become increasingly aware of a higher intelligence behind the scenes, transparently pulling the strings and trying to fabricate the narrative into art.
Given Redhill’s recent honour, I acknowledge that mine may be a minority opinion. A very astute friend of mine heartily recommended Bellevue Square to me and was much more engaged with it than I. For her, it started as a page-turner, grew tiresome in the middle, but really delivered a dramatic punch toward the end. But even she acknowledged that it exudes a certain coldness, as though the author wrote it just with his head and not his heart.
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Thanks to the generosity of the Azrieli Foundation, the voices of dozens of Canadian Holocaust survivors have been preserved for posterity in the foundation’s outstanding series of Holocaust memoirs. Added to the list is The Vale of Tears, the late eminent Montreal Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung’s well-told tale of his two years on the run, from 1939 to 1941, escaping from Nazi-occupied Europe and eventually reaching Kobe, Japan, Shanghai and then Montreal.
Originally from a Galician shtetl called Dukla, Hirschsprung endured an epic journey from German-occupied Poland to Soviet-occupied Poland, through a myriad of towns. An astute observer of Nazi cruelties, he was gripped with the imperative of escaping to the east with some yeshiva students from the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva.
Exit visas were made available by Japanese Vice-Consul Chiune Sugihara, but were they a mere trick to get the refugees on trains to Siberia? As always, Hirschprung was guided by scriptural and rabbinic wisdom, in this case, by contemplating a saying from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: “All the ways that a person traverses, they are all from the Holy One, blessed be He; they are the will of God.” The visas ultimately helped Hirschprung and the students make a dramatic escape.
Hirschprung, who ultimately served as Montreal’s chief rabbi for 30 years, initially resisted writing a memoir, but realized he had an obligation “to remember what Amalek did to you” (Deut 25:17).