475 pages
ISBN 0-385-65950-4
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by Trevor S. Raymond

Trevor S. Raymond is a teacher and librarian with the Peel Board of Education and editor of Canadian Holmes.


Suffering from a terminal disease, a university professor steps off a
ferry to his death in the Toronto harbour in 1997. He leaves behind a
monograph saying that 140 years earlier, a ship sank in that harbour
carrying glass negatives for more than 300 photographs of
mid-19th-century Toronto: every street and building—even the “nine
sorts of hitching posts” of the adolescent city. Given the subsequent
extension by landfill of the city into the lake, he has calculated that
this cache should be found at the site of an excavation being made for a
new arena. But his thesis was ridiculed in academia because he would
show no one a diary he claimed as his source. Does the mysterious diary
exist? Is the photographic treasure there? Or will his legacy be “a
lie in an empty hole”?

Thus begins this rich, haunting tale by an award-winning poet,
dramatist, and writer. It is a tale of loss, both of a father and a
husband, and of the collective memory of a city. The narrative shifts
back and forth in time; more than half of it takes place in the 1850s
when “there was no past to abandon” and officials have little
interest in a photographic portrait of their growing city. “There will
be archives here someday, and libraries,” our photographer argues in
1856. But in 1997, a city councillor makes it clear that neither the
city nor the NBA will tolerate an expensive delay in construction of
their new sports palace for the possibility of a look at their past.
“It’s not that special.”

The relationship of the historian’s resentful widow with her daughter
and her daughter’s fiancé, and the alliance in 1856 of a young
apothecary, an aged Irish photographer, and a young woman who doesn’t
know whether or not she is a widow are at the core of the narrative. But
the most important character of the novel is Toronto, vigorously and
affectionately brought to life in two vastly different times.


Redhill, Michael., “Consolation,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 15, 2024,