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book review

Alix Ohlin

ALSO REVIEWED HERE: Signs and Wonders: Short Stories, by Alix Ohlin (Anansi, 261 pages, $18.95)

No one can write books like Inside – a novel – and Signs and Wonders – a short-story collection – unless she grew up watching a lot of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen films (not a wild guess since Alix Ohlin is the daughter of Peter Ohlin, one of the world's great authorities on Bergman). But Ohlin is so completely herself as a fiction writer that you don't have to have seen any Bergman or Allen to get what she's doing – all you need is a lot of smarts and a wry sense of humour. Reading Inside kept reminding me of Diane Keaton's monologue in Allen's first Bergmanesque film, Love & Death (1975):

"To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you're getting this down."

A reader has to concentrate to get inside Inside in one go. Ohlin's novel is vividly pictorial but not at all cinematic: Times and places and narratives are as layered and non-linear as in Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version, and any production team is likely to make a dog's breakfast of it if they try to film it.

Inside begins in Montreal in 1996, when Grace, a psychotherapist, out skiing on Mount Royal, literally bumps into Tug with sufficient force to break the branch from the tree that holds a noose around his neck. Grace is out in the snow trying to gain perspective on the shadowy obsessions, compulsions, neuroses and psychoses of her clients, particularly those of Annie, a pathological schoolgirl who often razor cuts herself in a hatchwork pattern across her belly and always lies about everything to her parents, teachers and therapist.

Within 25 pages, the action shifts to New York City in 2002, where Annie is now Anne, an off-off-Broadway actress who becomes a Good Samaritan to Hilary, a stinking heap of homelessness curled inside the door of her Lower East Side apartment building.

Then, it's 2006 and we're in Iqaluit with Mitch, Grace's ex-husband and fellow therapist, who is on a short-term rotation in the Arctic to take a time-out from his not-so-good relationship with Martine and her autistic son, Mathieu. The book returns again and again to these are the people and places, with excursions into Kigali in 1994 with Tug and Los Angeles in 2003 with Anne.

Fragmentation opens Inside outward so that Ohlin can take in more of the larger world (the tribal-inflicted genocide in Rwanda, the substance-abuse destruction of Northern communities, the sex and drug and botoxic girly-girly escapism of the American television industry) and leave out many of the one-damn-thing-after-another cycles of everyday life.

Ohlin not only has "a great eye and a great ear and all the other equipment," Jay McInerney praised in The Missing Person, her first novel (praised also by J.M. Coetzee and overlooked by just about everyone in Canada except The Globe and Mail's Jim Bartley, who ranked it in his Top Five of the Year. Ohlin has as unsettling an old soul as Leonard Cohen's. She sees as clearly as he does that knotted matters of the heart cannot be successfully untied unless women are willing to act with strength and men to respond with generosity and good manners.

To generate the kind of buzz in Canada that Ohlin's first two books ought to have made, Anansi is releasing her second collection of stories, Signs and Wonders, simultaneously with Inside. An apt title and a precise description for anything and everything Alix Ohlin writes.

Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984.

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