They say an examined life is not worth living. In Michael Redhill’s first novel, Martin Sloane [Back Bay Books; Little, Brown], collage/media artist Martin Sloane examined life outside of himself in the minutia, creating tiny, elaborate dioramas with found objects that have layers and layers of meaning and mystery-- and perhaps failing to examine his own life. (On an interesting aside, Martin Sloane's work resembles the nostalgic boxes built by the real-life artist Joseph Cornell).
The story is deceptively simple and yet impossible to put down: Martin becomes the object of love for Jolene Iolas, a young, impressionable girl in college who falls for him when he visits her school for an exhibition. Shy and completely innocent, Jolene is quite opposite her beautiful best friend Molly, who has a different boy in her bed every night and cries over how they never stick around. Martin and Jolene awkwardly begin a love affair despite a difference of almost thirty years, a lifetime of experience, and different perspectives. In no time at all, he’s got a home and studio with Jolene in America, and one back in Toronto that, to her great chagrin, she isn’t invited to see. Despite this, for a few years, their relationship seems to work. And then one day he is gone without a word. Adding insult to injury, Jolene and Molly are separated for years over a misunderstanding that sprung out of his artwork. Ultimately, the two friends are reunited and meet in Dublin to figure out what happened to Martin and why.
Martin Sloane is a graceful literary novel that dips backwards and forwards through three generations of time, and leaps from the contemporary American Midwest to Toronto to Dublin, Ireland in meaty, thought-provoking chapters. As seems to be a current trend, Redhill drops quotes altogether in the chapters of days gone by, intentionally leaving the reader with a feeling of distance. Like Jolene, we’re all working to understand Martin and his story. And like real life (and maybe also a lot of art), we figure out bits and pieces of it and have to guess the rest.
Martin Sloane is a quiet novel, with a simple plot and only a few surprises. But Redhill is definitely onto something with his deep, rich expression of humanity, poetic language, and the sometimes incomprehensible evolution of personalities. The language doesn’t show off, the suspense doesn’t kill you, and yet the reader comes away feeling emotionally worn out. There are many quiet lessons in Martin Sloane that can only be borne from maturity. It’s a novel about boxing yourself in, being boxed in, and the sad patheticism of not communicating and settling for substitutes. Perhaps one of the big messages of the novel was best expressed in this conversation:
“It’s not really safe to love other people, is it?”
“They never really tell you that.”
“No,” I said. “That part you get to find out on your own.”