Out­stand­ing nexus of nar­ra­tive threads

Oh­lin’s Inside is im­pres­sive in its ma­tu­rity

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - IAN MCGIL­LIS

It could al­most be a chal­lenge thrown down in a cre­ative writ­ing sem­i­nar: De­vise a novel whose set­tings in­clude Montreal, Rwanda, Iqaluit, Hol­ly­wood and New York, with ex­tra points if you can squeeze in Brant­ford, Ont.

Fur­ther­more, have the ac­tion hop back and forth in time be­tween the late noughties and the mid1990s. Make sui­cide not just a loom­ing pos­si­bil­ity, but a vir­tual mo­tif. In­cor­po­rate hu­mour where needed.

Fi­nally, give it all the nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum and emo­tional co­her­ence of a more con­ven­tion­ally struc­tured work. You may be­gin.

Well, there is just such a novel, and those who have been fol­low­ing the ca­reer of Montreal-born Alix Oh­lin won’t be sur­prised that she is the one who has writ­ten it. She emerged in 2005 with the novel The Miss­ing Per­son and her work since has been marked by its au­da­cious ma­tu­rity — and its sheer pro­fu­sion.

In­deed, along with Inside, House of Anansi Press is si­mul­ta­ne­ously pub­lish­ing Oh­lin’s new story col­lec­tion, Signs and Won­ders. The last time such a dou­ble-bar­relled strat­egy was em­ployed in the pop cul­ture arena, it was by Guns n’ Roses. Oh­lin, I’m pre­pared to say, of­fers a take on the hu­man con­di­tion that in its nu­ance and in­sight puts Axl Rose in the shade.

The open­ing pas­sage finds Montreal psy­chother­a­pist Grace en­gaged in a stress-re­liev­ing bit of cross-coun­try ski­ing on Mount Royal, where she comes across a man ly­ing face down in the snow, hav­ing just tried un­suc­cess­fully to hang him­self from a tree.

A pat­tern is set: some­one has suf­fered some­thing ter­ri­ble, and some­one else must de­cide just how far their duty to help goes and what ex­actly their mo­tives are be­yond sim­ple in­stinct.

One of Grace’s pa­tients is the self-harm­ing teenager An­nie, who ends up pur­su­ing an act­ing ca­reer in post9/11 New York, where a run­away who re­minds her of her teenage self en­ters the pic­ture; Tug, that man in the snow, is try­ing to shake the demons of an en­counter with a grue­some episode of re­cent his­tory, and be­comes Grace’s love in­ter­est against

by Alix Oh­lin (Anansi, 258 pages, $22.95) all her bet­ter judg­ment; Mitch, her ex-hus­band, flees a trou­bled new re­la­tion­ship to do so­cial work in the Cana­dian north and quickly finds him­self in over his head.

Any one of these threads could eas­ily have sup­ported a novel of its own, but Oh­lin gives them all equal weight, play­ing the parts against each other, over­lap­ping them like a shift­ing Venn di­a­gram echo­ing across time and place.

It may seem a daunt­ing prospect for the reader, but re­ally this is how life is now ex­pe­ri­enced for most of us, if not first-hand, then in the bar­rage of con­flict­ing nar­ra­tives to which we’re sub­jected ev­ery day. Oh­lin im­poses or­der partly through her canny choice of struc­ture and her de­cep­tively ge­nial, some­times gen­tly comic tone, but mostly through her mas­ter­ful way with char­ac­ter.

Jonathan Franzen has writ­ten of a fic­tion writer’s mis­sion, “It’s not enough to love your char­ac­ters, and it’s not enough to be hard on your char­ac­ters: you al­ways have to try to be do­ing both at the same time,” and Oh­lin il­lus­trates the maxim per­fectly. The love she in­vests in her char­ac­ters isn’t al­ways smoothly trans­ferred to the reader but it’s ex­actly that prick­li­ness that makes these peo­ple so life­like.

Char­ity and com­pas­sion are their own re­wards, but as Oh­lin shows, they are just as likely to back­fire, es­pe­cially when mud­dled by things like guilt and lust.

Set pieces and frozen mo­ments are han­dled with equal flair: the sub­tle stages by which you re­al­ize that the stray to whom you gave tem­po­rary shel­ter has in­stalled her­self in your home and shows no sign of leav­ing, or that ver­tig­i­nous in­stant when you de­cide that, all con­sid­er­a­tions of sense and suit­abil­ity not­with­stand­ing, you’re go­ing to go to bed with a per­son any­way.

Oh­lin’s com­bi­na­tion of smooth prose, the­matic reach and struc­tural am­bi­tion makes for a novel that is both eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble and de­mand­ing in the best of ways. You need to pay at­ten­tion. The shifts in time and place can be mildly dis­ori­ent­ing — even ir­ri­tat­ing at first, es­pe­cially in cases where you’ve been wrenched out of a nar­ra­tive in which you’ve found your­self par­tic­u­larly in­vested.

But Oh­lin knows what she’s do­ing, and it dawns that what’s true of all good fic­tion ap­plies even more em­phat­i­cally here: Inside, though fully sat­is­fy­ing the first time through, all but de­mands a sec­ond read­ing. It’s some­thing most read­ers will be more than happy to do.

House of Anansi Press

Alix Oh­lin sets part of her new novel, In­side, in her na­tive Mon­treal.

In­side

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