Trevor reviews Inside, by Alix Ohlin

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My fellow Shadow Jurors are getting into the shortlist, so you will be seeing a number of excerpts from their reviews here. The following are the opening paragraphs from Trevor’s review of Alix Ohlin’s Inside (full review is here). I wasn’t as down on the book as Trevor was (my review is here) but neither was I particularly excited by it. As Trevor notes, others have been more impressed than he and I were:

I’ll cut to the chase: this is not my kind of book. It looked like it could have been. After all, a review in The Globe and Mail brought up Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman (here), two of my favorite auteurs whose movies I watch several times a year, but when reading Inside I saw none of that (I mean, not a bit). I started to actively dislike this book early on, so read this review with a grain of salt. Many others really liked it (though, as is well known, not everyone — see the controversial NY Times review here). For example, The Boston Globe has almost the exact opposite view of its characters from me: “keenly observed [. . .] characters so idiosyncratic, ambivalent, and contradictory they could be your family, your neighbors, people you work with”. And it is the only Canadian book to find itself on the Giller Prize shortlist and on the Writers’ Trust shortlist. For me, Inside started out well enough but quickly descended into one of those loosely structured montages of people in pain, and we’ve already seen these people and that structure many many times over the years. Inside adds nothing new.

The book opens in Montreal in 1996. Grace Tomlinson is out cross-country skiing one evening when she literally runs into a man who has just tried to hang himself. “Everything will be alright,” she says after she’s called for help. Up to this point he’s been unresponsive, but at that moment he sighs. Grace accompanies the man to the hospital. He doesn’t like her intervention, though he uses her to get out of further questioning from the doctors: “We were skiing together and I told her I was going to kill myself and went off in a different direction. I said I had the rope with me and was going to do it immediately. It took her nine minutes to decide to come after me. Nine minutes! Can you believe that? I timed her.” His name is John Tugwell, and he goes by Tug. By this time we’ve learned that Grace is a therapist, and, going along with his ruse, she can’t leave Tug alone until she’s sure he won’t try to kill himself again. Grace and Tug occupy one thread of the story.

The second thread is only slightly attached to the first. One of Grace’s patients in 1996 is Annie, a young girl who has no sense of self-worth and who cuts herself. In a novel about what’s “inside,” I was surprised that Grace’s first thoughts while she talked to Annie were nevertheless focused on Annie’s potential beauty outside.

The girl wasn’t beautiful yet, but she was going to be. She hadn’t grown into herself or into her body. Her features loomed too large on her face, and blue veins showed through her translucent skin at her temples and chin. Her dirty-blond hair hung thin and lank to her shoulders, and her forehead was covered with small red pimples. In a few years, Grace could imagine, when Annie was taller and learned to sit up straight, when her body grew curves to match her face, she would look like the movie star she so desperately wanted to be.

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