Martin Sloane, by Michael Redhill

How a lover of art learns about the art of love

Review,Julie Wheelwright
Monday 22 July 2002 00:00

It is rare to read a novel that pulses with such pleasure that you don't want it to end, but this is what Michael Redhill's debut delivers. This Canadian writer has used the art of Joseph Cornell, an Irish-American artist known for his three-dimensional sculptures that created worlds in miniature. Redhill's artist is Martin Sloane, who leads a hermetic existence until, at 56, he vanishes after a row with his girlfriend. Jolene Iolas, the much younger lover who narrates the novel, spends a decade trying to find him and to understand what drove him to a living death.

They meet after Jolene, on a trip to Toronto from her New England university, stumbles on a gallery showing one of Sloane's boxes entitled Mermaid. After seeing a tiny figure suspended in a sea of blue, she feels "overcome with greed... It was like the way a lover hungers for the body of one desired: I wanted no one else to ever see it again..."

She falls in love with the artist through his work and begins a correspondence that leads Jolene to arrange for him to give a lecture at her university in 1984. Although they become lovers (and Redhill writes delightful, convincing and sparky dialogue), Martin refuses to allow Jolene to know anything of his life as an artist. Even the shed that he erects in her garden is off-limits. A trespass by her friend Molly provokes a major crisis.

Each chapter is named after one of Martin's boxes and carries a story from his childhood in 1940s Ireland. The artist's life is revealed through snippets that reveal as much about his character as about the art. There is a powerful parallel between Martin's intricately detailed creations, which run with clockwork precision, and Jolene's discovery of unseen connections between people and events. "Some people believe in a connected world in which every one thing is cognate with every other thing, the bell tolling for you, for me," she muses.

The pleasure of Martin's company and art, Jolene believes, acts to protect her from loneliness or loss. But his absence leaves her vulnerable to the brutalities of life and the treachery of painful memories. Among the things Jolene has chosen to forget is the death of her mother from a car accident when she was a child. She begins to realise that her mother was fallible, fragile and – like Martin or Molly – capable of making poor choices that cause great harm to those she loved.

Several years after his disappearance, Jolene gives up her quest to find Martin and settles in Toronto. She has begun a new life when Molly contacts her from Dublin with the news that a gallery is exhibiting his work. His childhood is revealed as his source of inspiration, but also offers up reasons why he so feared intimacy. With this insight comes a fresh understanding of Martin's work, even if the trail grows cold. Like a work by Joseph Cornell itself, this is a structurally complex novel infused with charm, tenderness and exquisite humour.

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