Observer Review: Martin Sloane By Michael Redhill Essay, Research Paper
A fairytale detective storyMartin SloaneMichael RedhillHeinemann ?9.99, pp272This first novel comes with an endorsement from Michael Ondaatje, and it is no surprise that the author of The English Patient found much in it to admire. Michael Redhill shares with his Canadian compatriot a gift for studied lyricism, a complex kind of emotional intelligence and, most of all, a poet’s understanding of the workings of time. Redhill’s narrative glides gently in and out of present and past and builds into a powerful meditation on the implications of memory and the vacancies opened up by the loss of love.A young college student in upstate New York, Jolene, writes to a middle-aged artist whose work she discovers and admires. The artist, Martin Sloane, writes back, and when they eventually meet they find in each other all the things their letters allowed them to hope for. Over five years their relationship becomes one of remarkable intimacy: Jolene becomes Martin’s muse, and she slowly tries to open up in him the secrets of a past he seems to want to shield from himself.Martin’s art fetishises this personal history. His work is reminiscent of Joseph Cornell’s discomfiting little boxes of ticky tacky – a debt which the author acknowledges in a note. He makes intricate miniatures full of discreet references to childhood hurts: little model interiors which half reveal a tiny boy at the top of a lonely staircase surrounded by treasured objects; a child’s jewellery box which, when opened, reveals a half-alligator, half-ballerina turning under a parasol; a perfect honeycomb pierced by a single shaft of light to reveal an imprisoned fairy princess at its centre. As their love develops, Jolene, who lost her own mother in a car crash as a child, tries to piece together the story that has made Martin Sloane and his art what they have become.As she seems to be getting closer to these secrets, however, one night he gets up from their bed, walks out of the door – ‘gotta go’ – and never returns. The bulk of the novel details Jolene’s psychological odyssey as she tries to understand how this man who loved her could leave her so abruptly. Her journey to this truth takes 10 years. It begins in Toronto, where Martin Sloane lived, and ends in Ireland, where he grew up. The only clues that Jolene has to his story come in the pieces of art her lover made for her and gave to her; and in the unexpected intervention of her best friend and college roommate, Molly, who came to visit the day that Martin left.Redhill paces this sad and oblique detective story with great heart and delicacy. His writing drifts in and out of Jolene’s mind, cursed with memory, as she explores how little we might know of the people we feel closest to, and as she experiences the irrational pain of effect without apparent cause. At the heart of this story is an understanding of how this kind of emotional damage might be transmitted across time and between generations and how its pain might perhaps be mitigated by the comfort of objects – the fragmentary protected worlds, little homes, that Sloane’s (and Cornell’s) art aspired to.Redhill’s writing cherishes this kind of detail too: it seeks to startle with the immediacy of its description – a car crash sounds like ’someone stepping on a paper cup’; a willow tree’s roots search through the earth for water ‘like someone reaching their hand down through your roof at night’. Just occasionally, like Martin Sloane’s little boxes, it feels almost obsessive in its precision.For the most part, though, this is a novel without wrong notes. At one point, Jolene, who teaches a literature class at night school in Toronto, comes across a little list of dos and don’ts for writers put together by a creative-writing colleague: ‘Please don’t set anything in a glade,’ it suggests. ‘Please don’t make the dwarf the villain. Please don’t call your main character “the boy”. Please don’t use the word “undead”. Please don’t permit your characters to perform any nouns as if they were verbs. Please don’t allow the detective to explain it at the end.’Michael Redhill’s affecting fiction stays true to all of these tenets, but most compellingly, in a book that dramatises how the mysteries of another person can never quite properly be explained, it holds to the last of them: the resolution that Jolene finds to her quest is both revealing and not a conclusion at all.