Inside, by Alix Ohlin

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Grace is a psychologist in Montreal. She keeps her professional and personal lives both well organized and well separated. When she leaves work each day she truly leaves work and moves on to other things (or so she thinks — that will change as this novel moves on). In the opening pages of Inside it is 1996 and she has left the office to go cross-country skiing on Mount Royal — Montreal has finally had one of those snowfalls that make that delightful escape possible.

Early on her route she comes across an obstruction: “He could have been a branch or a log, even a tire”. In fact, it is a body — someone who has tried to hang himself but has not succeeded. Grace, perhaps reverting to her comfortable role as a psychologist, not only calls Emergency, she sticks around and goes to hospital with him (forgetting both their skis). This is a longish quote from Grace at the hospital, but it illustrates both author Ohlin’s voice and the way she approaches plot development:

Maybe it was just because she wanted to know what happened. Regardless, she was sitting in the waiting room hours later, shivering each time the glass doors slid open with an icy draft. The linoleum was streaked with gray-brown slush people had tracked in, and she could smell car exhaust and cigarette smoke from the sidewalk outside. There was no sign of any police officer wanting to ask her questions. The man had been wheeled off, with a canopy of nurses over his still-silent body. Grace waited, though she wasn’t sure for what or whom. When she remembered the skis — probably long gone by now — she smacked herself on the forehead. Hers were practically brand-new. She looked at her watch; it was seven o’clock, completely dark on the mountain. She was tired and hungry and ready to go home. Before she did, though, she wanted to know that he was being taken care of. She walked over to a nurse at the reception area.

The detail that is present in that extended quote gives you a sense of the flavor of Ohlin’s novel — throughout, she likes extended passages that explore her characters as they experience the events around them. And I must say that I appreciated that aspect of her work — remembering that she had forgotten the skis is exactly the kind of thing that I would do if stuck in an Emergency waiting room in similar circumstances.

The body in this case is one John Tugwell — he will not only survive, Grace’s interest in him will turn into a version of love that fills up some of the emptiness in her own life. That is story line number one of the book.

The biggest part of Grace’s emptiness, and the second narrative stream of the novel, is the break-up of her marriage to Mitch, even though it did occur some years ago. Mitch is also a therapist and he and Grace did not so much fall in love as fall into living together and then fall into marriage by convenience. Both spend their working day listening to other peoples’ problems — they spend their private lives doing their best not to talk about their own.

Mitch’s narrative stream is set in 2006, ten year’s later than Grace’s. We first meet him in Iqaluit, above the Arctic Circle, where he has accepted an assignment to work with aboriginal people, mainly, it is apparent, to get away from his current relationship with Martine, a post-Grace flame who now wants to get married. It is no spoiler to say that Mitch obviously has not yet got over Grace — avoidance pretty much defines him. (Aside: I have a personal weakness for “avoidance” characters — no reflection on my own behavior I am sure.)

He’d met Martine on the day her divorce became final, a moment of sorrow and vulnerability that he wasn’t too scrupulous to take advantage of. Had he met her even a day later, he believed, she wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. Forty-five, sexy, and brilliantly smart, Martine took care of her job and her son with determined energy, and she dispatched her husband once he proved unequal to the task of having a difficult child and rebelled by having affairs. Only at night did cracks show in her independent daytime self; but even then she rarely reverted back to the crying woman he had first seen smoking a cigarette outside the Palais de Justice, choking and sobbing through the gray storm of her own exhale.

Grace and Mitch: Two professionals, both with “issues”. Both running into a life-changing event (Mitch has a version of the body on the ski trail as well) that demands they abandon their carefully-built avoidance of reality and engage with what is around them.

Inside has a third narrative stream as well. In the opening chapter, after Grace leaves the hospital where “Tug” is recovering, she has an appointment with Annie. Annie is a 16-year-old with identity issues (“I am rotten, she wrote. I am diseased.“). She is responding by scarring herself with razor cuts to both her belly and arms — her parents’ reaction is to put this all down to an eating disorder and make things even worse.

Annie will leave her parents soon after her sessions with Grace and that opens up the third storyline in the book, set in 2002 between those of Grace and Mitch, when we find her in New York.

It was January. She found an apartment on the Lower East Side through a guy she met in her acting class. Larry’s grandmother had lived in the apartment for decades, keeping the rent low; now she was in a nursing home, adrift in an Alzheimer’s haze, only occasionally convinced she would soon move back home. The family, having cleared the apartment of its doilied furniture and ancient knick-knacks, sublet it to Anne at what even she, new to New York, could tell was an insane bargain. This was because Larry hoped to have sex with her. She took the apartment and dropped the class.

So we have a lot of elements at play here. Two confused therapists who, however good they might be at their work, are hopeless at living life. And a lost soul who has found her way to New York (and will eventually get to Los Angeles).

First, the good parts about what Ohlin does in this novel. Grace, Mitch and Anne all come to life. The descriptive parts that are present in the excerpts work (although at times they are a bit overdone) and all three characters become three-dimensional.

Now, the not-so-good parts. While all three are interesting, none of them are particularly compelling. And the hurdles that Ohlin sets in their way are pretty ordinary — we could meet a version of any of them all in real life, but that doesn’t make for a great novel. As the book moves on, Annie’s world moves farther and farther from that of Grace and Mitch — I was wondering why an editor had not suggested her story be excised from this novel and developed into another one if the author liked the character so much.

Inside is not a bad novel — indeed, it has many very good aspects to it. Unfortunately, they tend to come in parts and never mesh into a whole. As much as I appreciated Grace, Mitch and Anne, they never really gell as the cast of an excellent book.

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14 Responses to “Inside, by Alix Ohlin”

  1. Lee Monks Says:

    I love that first excerpt but on the whole this strikes me as one to pick up somewhere in the future. There’s a fine line between economical, engaging punch and terse occlusion, and this looks as though it’s too often the latter.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I think Ohlin is capable of a better novel than this one — it just seemed to flatten out at the end. Incidentally, her publisher, House of Anansi, also released a volume of short stories on the same day as this novel — I can’t recall another instance where there was a “double” release for a young author. I have the stories but am unlikely to get to them until after Giller season. From some of the events in the novel (like that first excerpt you cite) I suspect the stories could be quite good.

  3. lascosas Says:

    Kevin-
    This is lascosas from mookse’s Booker website. I found three of the Giller longlist on Kindle: this, Our Daily Bread & Ru, all three of which I’ve now read and must wait until I return to San Francisco on the 20th to receive another 7 from Indigo. I don’t think very highly of these first three.

    Ru I found to be a Hallmark card of a book with set piece scenes straight out of a thousand immigrant novels. Some of the language was arresting, but the tone was monochromatic, which ruined much of the impact. Daily Bread was a fine read, but again a stereotyped narrative with little except plot development to recommend it. I mean the meth lab loser family with one gentle soul in its midst against the hypocritical townies who looked down their noses at those lesser folk? Isn’t that the theme of half of Hollywood films?

    At least this book had the virtue of a slightly original plot, and a few characters distinctive in their pain and general lack of fitting in.

    I hope these three are on the low end of the Giller scale.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Lascosas: As you can tell from my review, I also found Ru somewhat thin — and I also don’t think Inside quite reaches its potential. Both are okay books but they could be better.

    And yes, I am hoping to read better books as my Giller adventure progresses.

  5. David Says:

    I really liked ‘Inside’ and was personally hoping to see it on the Booker longlist. Interestingly when I read it back in June it was Grace, Mitch and Tug who really held my interest, yet when I think back to it now it seems to be Annie whose story has left the biggest impression on me. I like it when a book does that: continues to develop in your mind long after finishing it. It’s by no means a perfect novel, as you point out, but it definitely didn’t deserve the (now infamous) critical mauling it got in the New York Times. I read her story collection, ‘Signs and Wonders’ shortly after this and think on the whole it is equally as good, though inevitably with some stories working better than others. It also features one story with a German (I think he was German) tourist with a hilarious grasp of the English language, seemingly picked up from watching action movies, which makes it one of only two books this year to have me in stitches. I’m going to try her earlier collection ‘Babylon’ soon.

    As an aside: unlike lascosas, I really enjoyed ‘Our Daily Bread’ – I’d agree that the town versus mountain bit is too neat and almost a cliché, but I thought her other explorations of Us and Them worked very well – there is hardly a relationship in the book that isn’t founded on mutual dependency and need. I also thought Davis was quite subtle in some areas – abuse glimpsed through windows rather than heavy-handedly detailed, the religious aspect played down so that it was more of an undercurrent. And the characters were wonderfully written.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I liked Annie as well, although I would have been more impressed if her story was linked more strongly to the other three. I look forward to getting to Signs and Wonders eventually.

  7. Guy Savage Says:

    I have a weakness for therapist novels–although as you point out, this one doesn’t come across as compelling. Great cover.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I’d be interested if you gave it a try and checked back in. The Writers Trust shortlist (one of the other two Canadian fiction prizes) was just announced and this is the only novel that is on both lists — an indication that this is a pretty “even” year in terms of quality in Canadian fiction. (Some might say a “disappointing” year, but I’m not willing to go that far yet.)

    The NY Times review mention above was, in my opinion, not of much value — most of the negative aspect of it reflected the reviewer’s distance from the author’s generation in terms of use of language. Certainly it is a better book than he found it.

    Having said that, I should warn that it isn’t really a “therapist” book. Most of that angle, as I read it, shows up in the way that Grace and Mitch so totally separate their professional and personal lives that they end up turning themselves into potential patients instead of practitioners of what they preach.

  9. Guy Savage Says:

    have you read any Hanif Kureishi, Kevin?

  10. Guy Savage Says:

    Your comment about therapists turning themselves into potential patients made me think of hanif Kureishi’s novel, Something to Tell You, another therapist novel (have a fondness for these), and in it is a therapist w/more than his share of problems. Perhaps this is why therapists seem to make good raw material: their jobs are spent helping others sort out their lives while their own are often in disarray

  11. Lisa Hill Says:

    Unlike Guy, I am not usually keen on therapists’ novels and by the sound of this one I had best let it pass by.

  12. buriedinprint Says:

    For me, the cohesion rests in the way that each of the characters experiences similar emotional responses to the strains (trauma) that they face in their individual situations, but, then, I am predisposed to enjoy reading this kind of story. I’m looking forward to reading her short stories, but I think I’ll let some time pass, so that I’m not just looking for more of what I found in Inside.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: While I agree that that is where the cohesion lies, for me it was not enough — the novel never really came together. Ohlin can write and, like you, I will take on the short stories but I plan on waiting for a bit.

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