Archive for the ‘Ohlin, Aliz’ Category

Trevor reviews Inside, by Alix Ohlin

October 5, 2012

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.


Inside, by Alix Ohlin

September 7, 2012

Purchased at

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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