Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Spiral (2017)

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.

No.

That does not make it okay.

Nunh unh.

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

Giller-a-bility

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 GardenMichael 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.”

2017-11-09T08:13:20+00:00

17 Comments

  1. Fresh bookishness! – Buried In Print November 15, 2017 at 10:54 am - Reply

    […] through the Giller Prize longlist, including Michael Redhill, Eden Robinson, Zoey Leigh Peterson and Joel Thomas […]

  2. Kat November 13, 2017 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    Oh, I loved this review! I enjoyed this book so much, and really should give it another read and see so much more. It also made me want to visit Toronto, though it should make me want to stay away. And are the Inger Ash Wolfe books good?

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 8:52 am - Reply

      Thanks, Kat! They’re literary mysteries, with some similarities to Louise Penny’s stories, but maybe ever-so-slightly more of an emphasis on the psychological-side of things. And you would love the market. It’s super bike- and pedestrian-friendly, as well as a good second-hand bookshop on the fringe of it. If you decide to visit, let me know and I’ll steer you to some other bookish places!

  3. Danielle November 13, 2017 at 3:30 pm - Reply

    Does she ever find Ingrid and more is Ingrid not a scary doppelganger–twins always seem a little scary to me–what are THEY doing. I like the idea of all the halves and reflections in this story, but did G. Ronan really need to rough her up only for a case of mistaken identity? I still (actually more now than before) want to read this!

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 8:36 am - Reply

      All pertinent questions! I’d forgotten that you bought this one (I think you’d really like Michael Sloane too and, for that matter, the mysteries too). There is a menacing element to the idea of Ingrid for sure, if only because of the sense of the unknown swirling around, and after we have a glimpse of Ingrid for ourselves, this does intensify, but there are so many different things to think about that Ingrid isn’t simply a typically scary-twin like you might be imagining.

  4. wendy November 12, 2017 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Intriguing

    • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 8:31 am - Reply

      I’m not entirely certain, but I think you might enjoy teasing this one out.

  5. iliana November 9, 2017 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    Excellent review. Sounds like quite the clever read!

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2017 at 5:48 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Iliana. It’s probably going to be on my list of favourites for this year…but I do love puzzle novels!

  6. annelogan17 November 9, 2017 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    Hmmm this seems like a complicated read. I’m hearing mixed review about it, so we will see what happens on Nov. 20!

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2017 at 5:02 pm - Reply

      It’s certainly accomplished, but whereas I love puzzle novels, I can see where some other readers would simply admire them (but not love them), and other readers would simply rather avoid the whole scene. Are you saying that you would read it if it won?

  7. Naomi November 9, 2017 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    This review is brilliant! Of course, if I hadn’t read the book, I would probably be completely bewildered, but at the same time dying to know what you’re talking about. Just like I’m still dying to know what’s going on, even after reading the book! But I loved it. I t reminded me of After James that way – loving it even though I had no idea what was happening. I have a feeling I’m going to have to re-read this one before moving on to the second!

    • Buried In Print November 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Naomi. And you were right: I loved this one! I was definitely writing with the reader-who’s-already-read-it in mind, while still avoiding spoilers. It’s definitely a puzzle novel, and I do love those. But I also think you could just read it for the top-level story and simply be entertained, although then you’d probably wonder why it’s nominated for such a high-profile award? And, yes, very After-James-y: totally! Although with that one, I feel like you are not meant to be equipped to unravel the snarls; here, I think you are intended to have the opportunity to do so, even if you opt out? What do you think?

      • Naomi November 10, 2017 at 12:21 pm - Reply

        Agreed. Except I don’t think I have it figured out at this point. I thought maybe I was going to need all three books for that. What about you?

        • Buried In Print November 10, 2017 at 1:24 pm - Reply

          I guess I assumed that there wouldn’t be any answers in the next book, so I was just working with what we have; I’m curious to see what he does with the trilogy for sure!

          • Naomi November 10, 2017 at 5:44 pm - Reply

            Have you come up with a theory you feel confident about? I thought of a few different scenerios, but don’t feel confident about any of them! I think I need to read it again!

            • Buried In Print November 20, 2017 at 8:22 am

              I’ll probably read it again before reading the other works, but for now I’m settling with the idea that we all make our own narratives – Jean too – and that allows each of us to make our own narrative about these fragments of experience too. We should chat backchannel about the details!

Leave a Reply to wendy Cancel reply