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Inside (Borzoi Books) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 5, 2012
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“A skillful storyteller . . . attractively quick-witted and wry.” âJ. M. Coetzee
“Ohlin has a great eye, a great ear, and all the other equipment auguring a very successful future.”âJay McInerney
“Expect to hear her spoken of in the same reverent breath as Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams.” âHeidi Julavits
From the highly acclaimed author of The Missing Person and Babylon and Other Stories, a resonant novel of entwined lives and a woman with an unsettling ability to broach the innermost dynamics of the people around her.
Â Â Â Â Â When Grace, an exceedingly competent and devoted therapist in Montreal, stumbles across a man who has just failed to hang himself, her instinct to help kicks in immediately. Before long, however, she realizes that her feelings for this charismatic, extremely guarded stranger are far from straightforward. In the meantime, her troubled teenage patient, Annie, runs away from home and soon will reinvent herself in New York as an aspiring and ruthless actress, as unencumbered as humanly possible by any personal attachments. And Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband, who is a therapist as well, leaves the woman he’s desperately in love with to attend to a struggling native community in the bleak Arctic. We follow these four compelling, complex characters from Montreal and New York to Hollywood and Rwanda, each of them with a consciousness that is utterly distinct and urgently convincing. With razor-sharp emotional intelligence, Inside poignantly explores the many dangers as well as the imperative of making ourselves available toâand responsible forâthose dearest to us.
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This quote, which Alix Ohlin uses then repeats late in Inside, could be the leitmotif of the novel. Ohlin is not simply writing stories, though she is one of the best storytellers among today's younger novelists. She is also spooling out a theme, one which runs through the lives of all her major characters. Inside is complex, at times a bit confusing as it floats back and forth in the lives of several characters. Ultimately, it is held together not by narrative but by thematic coherence. Grace, Annie, Mitch, Tug, Diane and Hilary, who might be said to be the books main protagonists, all live lives in which what start as trivial, quirky accidents result in seismic changes. They all have intense encounters which begin in inconsequential incidents, flower to nearly unbearable intensity and daunting complexity, then end or fade away as circumstantially as they began. All except Grace and Mitch, the divorced couple who, Ohlin hints, will get back together older and wiser as the novel ends.
Reading Inside feels more like reading the stories of Alice Munro or Debra Eisenberg than any current novelist I can think of. Especially in the earlier part of the book, the chapters read as self-contained stories rather than stages of a novel. Only toward the end, when the deeply flawed Mitch and Grace rediscover each other, do we feel we're in something like a conventional novel. But we could not feel this way had we not first experienced the mosaic of the previous chapters. Ohlin is gifted at conveying the emotions, the joy and heartbreak - especially the heartbreak - in the lives of everyday people who strive for emotional wholeness without quite knowing they're doing it - or perhaps do know but are frightened out of their wits by of the very completeness for which they long. There's a quality of realness to these people that makes them live for the reader, and that makes the reader like them, feel exasperated with them, root for them, occasionally wonder what the hell is the matter with them, much as you do for family members and friends in your own life. Alix Ohlin is a heavyweight with a deceptively light touch. A young novelist to watch.
For some reason, this book has become controversial as a bellweather of contemporary cultural trends. It may have something do with the unplanned pregnancies, the abortions, the apparent soullessness of one main character and the commitment phobia of at least two of the others. Ohlin does not take sides in the waning "culture wars," but she is adept at showing the way real people live in the real world of what one character calls "the comfortable nations." In any event, this is a book with both emotional power and social resonance. It is a novel of depth, disguised at times as a pop romance. Perhaps it's both. That may account for its greatness.
This is a book written almost as a collection of short stories that are all intertwined with each other, and that present us with the doubts and fears we all have and how we act upon them, mainly because we seek love through approval, attention and validation. But we all end up discovering that we have to go deep inside, to know ourselves, to understand ourselves in order to find the source of Love.
Deep, sometimes somber and sad, others full of hope, a great novel worth reading.
I guess lately I've become tired of reading about failed men and women, worn and regretful divorcees. So I was grateful that, although those character types exist in "Inside", Ohlin allows them to inhabit some qualities of that role as well as transcend it and achieve a sense of, forgive the pun, grace. Because that's what this book is about, one of the things, anyway, the recognition and acceptance of another's complete personhood, failures and wrong turns included, the only thing that sustains us in the long run.
I was so taken in with Ohlin's writing that I was sad when I realized that Grace, the eponymous protagonist, doesn't exist in the real world because I loved her character so. Then I got the sense that somewhere out there, a Grace does exist, and Ohlin has just put her on paper rather than the other way around.
My highest recommendation.
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