By Alix Ohlin
Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 272 pages
As its title announces, Alix Ohlin’s new novel, “Inside,” focuses on interiors — of bodies, of personalities, of homes and hearts. It can be fairly considered a meditation on the varied meanings of the word “inside.” But it doesn’t read like a meditation. It reads like the interlaced stories of Grace, Tug, Anne and Mitch.
Grace is the one who connects them. Formerly married to Mitch, she is a Montreal-based psychotherapist. We meet her as she skis into Tug, who is attempting to hang himself from a tree. Grace saves him. At first, he pretty much spurns her efforts to make sure he’s all right, but eventually they become lovers. Nonetheless, it’s a long time before he opens up and tells her about his traumatic experiences as a U.N. aid worker during the genocidal civil war in Rwanda.
In the meantime, we meet Grace’s patient Anne, who razors parallel lines across her belly. By the time she is in her early 20s, Anne is in Los Angeles. She’s already several steps up the acting ladder because she loves projecting herself outward to capture an audience’s attention. More intimate connections are anathema to her. She regards sleeping with men as “the cost of doing business.” She lies when it’s opportune. She rarely engages emotionally, so it’s surprising that she takes Hilary, a pregnant teen, into her apartment. Like the reader, she doesn’t really understand why she has behaved so atypically until Hilary spots that the “on purpose empty” apartment shows that Anne and she are alike: They are both runaways.
Anne’s story is the most engrossing in the novel, not least because she is not a very nice person. On the other hand, Grace, as her name suggests, is a model of goodness. Making goodness likeable can be a hard literary task. Ms. Ohlin does a masterly job with Grace at this. She delineates her with delicacy, showing her changing over time, even occasionally poking a little fun, so that readers find her both sympathetic and believable.
In contrast, Mitch is less interesting because his motives are less clear. He reaches out to others, and seems to bond with them, but fairly quickly drifts away. He fails in his marriage with Grace and in a later relationship with Martine. Working in an Inuit town in the Arctic, he flounders when he cannot help a struggling teen. Back in Montreal, he’s distraught and isolated until he reconnects with Grace. On the last page of the novel, he is dropping her off after a Christmas shopping trip: “She smiled at him in the winter dark, and then invited him inside.” She means inside her apartment, but is she perhaps implying that he might return to her life? It’s a possibility.
Who invites whom into their home is revelatory. Tug doesn’t invite Grace to his apartment, but she goes anyway and is startled by its order and even elegance. When they become lovers, they spend most of their time at Grace’s. Later in the novel, it’s clear she should have thought more about the implications of this. Mitch has no permanent home that we see. He stays for a time with Martine and Grace, and shares a house in the Inuit village. Similarly, Anne is a serial visitor: living cheap in a friend’s rent-controlled apartment in New York; abandoning it to do a gig in Scotland, then winging off to California where she stays in houses and hotel rooms provided by employers.
The lack of a long-term personal space suggests that neither she nor Mitch can share an “inside.” In a way, they are like Martine’s son, who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome and so cannot fully connect with others. Certainly for Anne, sharing what’s inside is not a modus operandi. She only opens up in private, when she cuts herself and savors the leaking blood.
A snow globe illustrates the cover of this book. It has been shaken so the tiny flakes are floating around the gleaming glass ball. We can see them, and delight in them. But we cannot touch them. They are sealed off. This picture ingeniously captures some of the themes of the novel. But it lacks its richness. This is an intelligent study of the inside that psychotherapists probe and the inside that friends and lovers share. It is alert to the inside where we all begin, and the inside that can be filled with so much desperate knowledge that there’s no carrying on. It’s packed with vivid scenes, deftly sketching Montreal, Edinburgh, New York and other places. That Alix Ohlin has packed in so much yet never fallen into turgidity evidences a serious literary talent. The reader’s attention never wavers.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.