by Michael Redhill
A review by Georgie Lewis
Robert Hughes, in American Visions, wrote of the artist Joseph Cornell, famed for boxed dioramas of found objects: "At times, though not often, Cornell's imagination looks fey or precious. There is a treacherous line between sentiment and sentimentality....Yet his gothic fantasies and fussily reverential evocations of dead Victorian ballerinas....are usually drawn back from the edge by Cornell's rigor as a formal artist."
This "treacherous line between sentiment and sentimentality" worries (or should worry!) many artists whose work ventures into the realm of the love relationship. Michael Redhill's novel Martin Sloane not only manages to tightrope walk across this line, but with breathtaking grace explores the artist and lover in relation to sentiment and love.
The title character is an artist whose work resembles the late Joseph Cornell. The narrator, Jolene, is at university when she becomes entranced by one of Sloane's works, which she sees in a Toronto art gallery. She begins to correspond with him, eventually meeting and falling in love with him. When he disappears from her bedroom one night, never to return, Jolene begins a long period of mourning, from which she is only shaken — finally — by her old friend Molly, who believes she has discovered what happened to Sloane.
And so this novel moves, from flashbacks to Sloane's childhood in Dublin, to Jolene grieving in Toronto, to her final pilgrimage to Ireland ten years after Sloane's disappearance. But even as I say that the novel "moves," I grasp for a more fitting verb. Martin Sloane is so delicate, and in some ways so dreamlike and vaporous, that the reader feels more in a state of suspension than movement. The haunting narrative is only one satisfying aspect of reading this gorgeous novel. Redhill explores the themes of the artist's difficulty in sustaining a love relationship with another person, the process of grief and love lost, and where love exists in relation to one person and another, with elegance and sensitivity. And, the prose is sublime, sparse but emotionally resonant.
I was so moved by this novel — emotionally wrecked, it felt like — that I was compelled to tell many friends to read it. However, in doing so, I also feared that what had touched me was so intensely personal that they might not be as profoundly affected as I was. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Michael Redhill is one of those few writers, like Michael Cunningham or Kazuo Ishiguro, whose art is universal.