Not long ago, Sarah Selecky recommended Alix Ohlin’s short story collection, Signs and Wonders, to me, which she’d read in order to write an endorsement. For the back of the book, Sarah wrote, “This collection is a gift — Alix Ohlin writes about intimacy with elegance and wisdom. These stories transcend questions of human happiness or unhappiness and reveal, with the delayed intensity of a sonic boom, the wonder of the insolvable, beloved, complicated mystery that is love.”
Happily, and not knowing I wanted to read her, Anansi recently sent me Inside, Ohlin’s latest novel, and I’ve read it before Signs and Wonders (that’s next). I’m positive that it is not inaccurate to say that Sarah’s words work equally for this novel.
Released the same month as Signs and Wonders (May 2012), Inside begins with Grace, who’s skiing alone in the quiet woods on Mount Royal in Montreal when she comes across a man lying prone in the snow. “At first glance,” the book begins, “she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days.” Unexpectedly meeting this man — rather, rescuing him — changes Grace’s life forever.
Told mainly from the perspective of three protagonists, Grace, Mitch, and Anne, and partly and significantly by the man whom Grace found (Tug), all whose lives intersect over ten years in influential ways, Inside is an exploration of how those whom we know, look to, rescue, split from, and love, change us. It’s a study of human behaviour, how we navigate or look for independence, acceptance, and love, and how we each respond to certain stressful circumstances, not exclusively our own experience, like trauma, suicide, unwanted pregnancy, the demands and needs of others, and particularly failure. Most of all, aside from examining the choices we make as we grow into ourselves, and how those choices carry us both toward and away from those people who are important to us, Inside has at its heart the meanings and importance of truth, in relation to others, to what we tell ourselves, and to what we want to believe. (Often, the line, “she believed him” shows up, and it’s amazing how much that simple sentence can say.)
Ohlin’s writing is first of all compelling and insightful, which serves to deepen the experience of the story — a good thing, since the book is narrated, it seems to me, with a sort of observant distance from the characters. Yet you feel close to them, understand them, empathize with them, wish for them. The graceful yet incisive way Ohlin explores and portrays the complexities of characters both peripheral (yet important) and main is truly nothing short of breathtaking.
Therapy is a major theme in this novel — both Grace and her ex-husband Mitch are therapists, and both struggle with how to help but also with how to maintain both focus on their clients while in appointments and dedication to their profession. Both have also unexpectedly come across significant people who need their help and end up changing their lives (Grace finds Tug, but also has Anne, a teen in crisis, as a client; Mitch goes to the Arctic where a young man, Thomasie, thrusts himself at him in desperation; Anne, later a successful actress, rescues a homeless woman who imposes herself, her unborn baby, and her boyfriend on her).
I was curious about the therapy theme and decided to see if Alix had mentioned it somewhere in talking about her book. In a short video on Goodreads, Ohlin says that “therapy, like writing and reading, is a process that takes place entirely through language.” People go to therapy, she surmises, because the story they tell themselves about their own lives isn’t working, and the job of the therapist is to try and get them to make themselves a different sort of character in their own story. As someone who goes to [and really enjoys] therapy, I think this is a very accurate and insightful way of looking at therapy but also people in general and how they present themselves to others. In relation to the novel, I think specifically of Hilary (the woman Anne rescues) and Tug here, whose stories are revealed slowly and evasively, and whom we can never entirely trust. Also nestled in the quest for truth — their own, of those with whom their lives intersect — is how both Mitch and Grace respond to their responsibility as therapists as well as the results of the choices they make in dealing with their clients.
Important, too, are the many facets of love, shown mainly throughout the book as romantic (both heterosexual and gay), familial, filial, for suffering humanity, and as friendship. Love of occupation is also explored.
I really want to talk about the various possible meanings of the title, to discuss the characters’ sometimes unpredictable, even distressing responses to what they were faced with. But I feel as though if I write more about this story, I’ll give everything away; it feels almost like telling you everything about someone without letting you discover them for yourself. The characters are so real in this book I keep feeling as if I know them or will see them. The settings in Montreal, New York, LA, and Rwanda are so alive as to make you feel you recognize the places, even if you’ve never been. You need to experience this first-hand.
This is a novel to be savoured, and my only regret about it is that I finished it, and am for now left without any Ohlin to read. Her writing is so intimate, so warm and beautiful, the story so compelling, that even by only page 60 or so I was already emailing friends asking if they’d heard of Ohlin and entreating them to get Inside and read it. After only the first couple of pages, I was already tweeting how much I loved the book.
As Sarah said, Alix writes with elegance and wisdom. And the way she navigates and exposes and unravels the complexities of life is, indeed, a gift to literature, and to us: ultimately, Inside allows and encourages us to look deeper within to seek our own truths.
A special thank you to Anansi for sending me Inside. And to Alix for writing it!