Poet and playwright Michael Redhill's first novel seems destined to become a small classic, one of those books handed from friend to friend. Much about the book is refined¨the title character is inspired by real-life artist Joseph Cornell whose art-in-boxes is widely beloved¨but its larger themes, about romantic and sexual attraction, loss and friendship, the confident joy and unbearable pain of being alive, will appeal to a mass audience¨plus the fact that the narrative centres on the principal character's mysterious disappearance.
In his opening scene, Redhill acquaints us with his cast of intriguing misfits: Martin Sloane, artist; his much younger lover, Jolene Lolas, teacher of English at Indiana Univeristy; her Lawyer friend from New York, Molly Hudson. The three are in the workshop Jolene has built for Martin in Bloomington. Jolene narrates the story of one of Martin's boxes. Eight-year-old Martin resident of Dublin, had been encouraged by his father to go to the cinema alone, against his mother's wishes, to see an Irish film about patriotism and betrayal. The film Martin sees is not, as the boy guesses, about the importance of being honest or "how you shouldn't drink when you're flush," but, as his father explains, about the loss of home, about no longer belonging in the only place you've ever known. For this account of little Martin's illicit trip to the Grand Central Cinema, Jolene received a good grade from Martin. "Just about perfect," he had told her, "except the candy store [where his father took him afterward for hot chocolate] was called Goldman's." The three of them then gaze at the artwork, the product of this excursion to the movies. Inside a box the Dublin cinema was lovingly reconstructed, right down to a pretend night sky that lights up when the lights are dimmed.
Redhill constructs this scene like the playwright he is, much as Martin Sloane's works themselves resemble tiny stage sets. Remembered in precise detail by Jolene as she searches her past for meaning, the night with Martin and Molly contains essential information. Jolene could read his character like a book, Martin had said approvingly¨or was that ruefully?¨to the watching Molly. Jolene believed her role had been to please this older, accomplished man, but she was also driven to possess him, by learning the details of his life. They had been lovers for three years, and yet he had never let her visit him in Toronto, where he had lived. Jolene's friend Molly had been her opposite: brash, sexual, probing. She had only been visiting for eight hours in the Indiana town where Jolene taught college English, but it was on that night that Martin left Jolene, breaking her heart and, for a time, her spirit. Molly's role is his departure¨was she observer or participant?¨is a question that remains unanswered. It tore at Jolene as Molly too had exited from her life.
Jolene tells her story from a safe ten years' distance. Sloane was no Picasso, no seducer of awestruck young girls. As an American sophomore, Jolene fell in love with his work while on a class trip to Toronto, then arranged for him to have a show at her campus, and to stay at her apartment. "Do you want to go to bed?" Martin asks. She misinterprets the question as a sexual move, whereas he only means, "Are you tired?" Embarrassed, they go to sleep. Separately. Eventually they become lovers, but never evolve into the 'normal couple' that Jolene desires. Theirs is a love affair of a few days here, a few days there.
The maker of nostalgic, antic arrangements of "bereft little worlds" has reached this girl's heart not because he is famous. He isn't. What they share in common are childhood tragedies. A woman whose mother died when she was eight, meets and falls in love with an illusive man of fifty-four who obsessively constructs fanciful versions of his own lost childhood world. It all fits.
Martin's departure leaves Jolene as bereft as one of his small, sad, pieces of art. In an act of futile rebellion, she picks up and moves to Toronto, the forbidden city. When the book begins, Jolene, thirty-five, is not the young woman who lost her love and her best friend on the same night. Her "long hibernation underground" is over; she wears "normalcy like a lead shield," and she can prate ironically on the theme of grief: "It would have been a good decade to suffer a loss if I'd been able to get into all the healing that everyone was doing. I had co-workers in therapy, neighbours in yoga, and I briefly knew a man who drank his own urine."
A measure of Redhill's skill with this character is that he makes her maturation¨and the city in which she grows up¨seem so plausible, so tangible. We expect engaging imagery in the Irish sections of the book¨and the writing there is fine indeed¨but Redhill does as much for Toronto. In her new lover's apartment, Jolene wanders around one night looking for clues to Daniel's life amid his knick-knacks and keepsakes, in the contents of his fridge. She even removes a photo of a previous girlfriend from a frame and puts it back, empty, ˘like an elevator waiting for a passenger.÷ She then stands "full frontal in the window" eating leftover Chinese take-out. She takes note: "Below, another street-car went past completely empty and the driver craned his neck to take me in. The lonely people in a city are all joined together at night." When Daniel, her first lover since Martin, wakes from a dream, he tells her of walking down a street with his childhood self; he remarks how strange it is that when we're old no one will remember what we were like when we were little. Jolene, who has already experienced the lure of childhood memories, quiets him. This moment is quite eerie and touching, and like everything Redhill writes, feels completely true.
In her new life Jolene again teaches English. We see her passionately leading her students to uncover the mystery at the heart of a play by Euripides, which is "the story under the one we're being told." Suddenly, her own buried story surfaces: Molly phones. She tells Jolene that she is in Dublin, where she has found Martin's artwork in a gallery. Will Jolene join her? The mystery of Martin's disappearance propels the plot from here on; all the lingering questions now rise to the surface, ghost-like, vivid¨curiously resembling the people in Ireland the former friends meet on their quest.
Equal at least to love, Jolene comes to realize, is friendship¨both require a leap of faith, an investment in trust. When either falls apart, we demand to know, "What happened?" The scenes between Jolene and Molly crackle with energy as they search for the missing Martin Sloane, trying to assign responsibility and make sense of this puzzle, this bizarre entanglement, that has damaged them both. With this luminous, wonderful book, Michael Redhill highlights the complexities of human relationships in profound and unexpected ways. ˛