Whether or not it’s 50%, there is a part of Michael Redhill who is Inger Ash Wolfe; he has published four mysteries using this pseudonym. And, so, there is certainly some Michael Redhill, in Hazel Micallef, too. Hazel being the heroine of that series.
But she’s a character, you might say. Technically, true. But what is a pseudonym, if not another character? If it was simply a marketing ploy, Michael Redhill would not have worked so hard to maintain the illusion for so long.
Eventually, Inger Ash Wolf became too real to be concealed. Perhaps because her creation – Hazel – became too real. Too real for her readers to allow her genesis to go unexplored.
If you’re not interested in the questions of identity that circle between author and characters, between self and other self, and between a constructed persona and a real author, Bellevue Square probably isn’t the novel for you. Because even if there are some notable squares in the story, readers are more often travelling in circles.
The simplest explanation of Bellevue Square is that it is a park, the size of a city block, in the Kensington Market district of Toronto, Ontario. (Conveniently, a Heritage Minute has just been released about the neighbourhood: see sidebar.)
If ever there was a polyphonic corner of a city, The Market is it. Which is suitable for this novel because multiplicity is at the heart of it too.
Specifics matter in The Market. Readers explore Augusta and Baldwin Avenues, the rooming houses on Denison Avenue, the Synagogue and the Al Waxman Statue.
“Kensington Market’s energy was hustle too, plus bustle, a lot of movement right in front of your eyes, and a shudder or rattle behind it. Countercultural, but bloody and raw. The organic butcher beside a row of dry-goods shops offered, in one window, white-and-red animal skulls with bulbous dead eyes, and in the other, closely trimmed racks of lamb and venison filets, displayed overlapping each other like roofing tiles. Then some stranger rustles past with blood on his cheeks.”
Jean Mason explores these places too. More familiar territory for her is further west on Dundas, near Trinity-Bellwoods Park, where she has a bookstore (although it is run by a responsible young man named Terrence, which frees Jean to participate in more interesting plots than shelving and ordering books). But she has a reason for spending more time in The Market, in Bellevue Square.
Jean remarks, at some point, that the name Bellevue Square is misleading; it is more of a rectangle, a small one. Trinity-Bellwoods Park is a huge rectangle. Where are the squares, now that you mention it?
Denison Square is not even a shape, but a street. Dundas can be a street, but it’s also a Port (in fact, Jean’s family is from the small town of Port Dundas, where she met her husband, Ian).
Still, these tangible bits take on a new importance for readers, because if squares represent stability, Jean Mason’s life is not a square either. (Could be that ‘Mason’ is a nod to David Mason, lifelong bookseller.)
Within a few pages of the novel, she describes being roughly tumbled against a bookcase in the store by a man (G. Ronan, a regular customer and not previously known to be into roughing and tumbling). He believes Jean is misrepresenting herself somehow, because he believes he has just spoken to her in The Market, whereas she claims she has been in the store the entire time.
Mr. Ronan is thrown off and, hence, throws Jean off her feet too. This is what happens when someone questions our reality. When impossible things occur and people around us insist that they are not only possible but real.
But everything is okay, because it turns out that Jean simply has a doppelganger.
That does not make it okay.
Nor does the talk of La Llorona, La Sayona, La Siguanaba, de Maupassant’s The Hoola, “miracle women” or Ra make it okay.
None of this works towards solving what Jean calls “the mystery of our lookalikery”.
This is partly because faces are untrustworthy markers.
Appearances can be altered. By memory. By bronzer. By facial hair.
Who even sees faces anymore: everybody is looking down, focussed on their smartphone.
A photographer that Jean comes to know in The Market (a haven for many patients of CAMH, outpatients and daypass recipients from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) suggests that photographing people’s hands and feet would be more useful for identification than faces.
Jean has been calling him Zippy and she continues to think of him that way, but his name is really Ritt. And ultimately he chooses to photograph flowers not people. Although Jean offers him cash for any photographs he takes of her doppelganger, Ingrid.
Ingrid? Yes, Ingrid Fox. The doppelganger.
Names, also untrustworthy. (Like, Jean and Ingrid, Zippy and Ritt.)
Sometimes because they are concealed. By lies. By misunderstandings. By mispronunciations. By publishing companies (at least one other pseudonym arises).
Cam Aitch is a person, but CAMH is a building. Arby C is a character, but RBC is the Royal Bank of Canada. Even a restaurant called Churros Churros Churros isn’t what it seems.
Jean introduces Ritt to her husband, Ian, when he accompanies her to The Market one day. Ian is concerned about Jean’s level of distraction. She puts on a different face to reassure him, pretends to be a functioning mother and wife, as she describes it. But he is a policeman, he wants to see the evidence for himself.
“There are so many books with crazy main characters too. Don Quixote is not the only one. Ahab has borderline personality disorder; Gregor Samsa, persecution mania. The Cat in the Hat is clearly batshit. And of all the characters in the Bible who supposedly hear directly from God, Noah gets the craziest task.”
Maybe Jean is a little unhinged, readers might think, but she is capable of assessing her own fragility. She can recognise when she is slipping, losing control. She knows when to tighten her grip.
At least, that’s what readers think. But we’d be crazy to take it at face value. So, instead, we look for the parts of Jean’s story that we can trust.
Bits of metal and concrete. If someone spots Jean near a certain street sign or a particular building, she must be there. If another character, whose sanity has never seemed to slip (like Ian’s, like Terrance’s), places Jean in a specific location, that must be real. But Bellevue Square? It doesn’t even exist anymore.
Bits of glass, windows and mirrors. Readers consider the ways in which Jean connects (and disconnects) from the people whom readers believe she loves. Her husband, yes, but also her two sons, Nick and Reid, and her sister, Paula.
Readers observe her interactions with reflections and refractions, with her memories. We test our own working theories. What would we do if we were thrown against a bookcase and questioned as to our whereabouts when we knew we had never left.
“Sometimes when you see an actual TV screen through a window, from a sidewalk or as you pass in a car, you realize how many layers you look through every day to connect with others. Through a window, see a show in which a character is seen in a mirror watching a television show. Navigate a world where half of everything you know is a reflection, a refraction, or a memory. Working theories are almost always incomplete or dead incorrect, including all the important ones you’re operating under.”
But that’s not the half of it.
Also, “[l]ooking alike isn’t the half of it,” Jean remarks.
She observes the ways in which one chooses to divide the world. She, for instance, in her bookstore, chooses to organize the biography section by subject for half of the year and by author for half the year.
Her mother lives half the year in Toronto and half the year in Key West. (Paula, Jean’s sister, lives in Phoenix. Great name for a city.) In Port Dundas, half the people there loved Ian and half of them hated him. Comments on a Facebook feed are half positive and half negative. Half the world is on one side of a mirror and half is on the other.
Half of the novels listed in the front of Bellevue Square are written under Michael Redhill’s name. Half of them are written by somebody else.
How can we, as readers, trust anything about this story. When we don’t even know who’s telling it.
Jean is camped out with Shirley Kaszenbowski* and Lilah Kemp**. Make room for me, please.
*Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black with Pearls
** Timothy Findley’s Headhunter
Bellevue Square‘s superpower is its doppleganger-ishness.
Novels with an inherent element of mystery have charmed Giller juries in the past, as with Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid, which was shortlisted in 2013. Those with a hint of madness, too, as with Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim shortlisted in 1999, and some of the stories in Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away and Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden. Michael Redhill’s novel Martin Sloan was shortlisted in 2001, the story of an artist who captures miniature narratives with objects in small boxes, an artist who disappears. In Bellevue Square, a character creates her own narratives and she also disappears (or, else, she multiplies). This year’s jury might find her difficult to locate to award her the prize, but they could issue a reward for her captor.
“Neighbourhoods like Toronto’s Kensington Market have helped shape our country by providing newcomers a first stop in Canada. In the first animated Heritage Minute new arrivals transform a single store as it passes from generation to generation and culture to culture.”