Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 353 pages; 2012.
I’m going to put my hand up from the off and admit that as much as I enjoyed Alix Ohlin’s Inside I’m curious as to why it made the shortlist for this year’s Giller Prize. Yes, it’s an entertaining read. Yes, it’s peopled by well developed characters. And yes, it has an unusual narrative structure. But it’s not doing anything particularly special to warrant a literary prize and the message — that life can be lonely and difficult and perplexing — is a well worn, almost clichéd one.
I will also admit that if it were not for my participation in the Shadow Giller I may well have abandoned this book after the first chapter.
Inside is about four characters — Grace, Mitch, Tug and Annie — whose stories are told in interleaved and interconnected narrative threads. Grace, a therapist, is the lynch pin of the novel, because she is divorced from Mitch (who is also a therapist), and Tug is the man she accidentally saves from suicide (I’ll return to this in a bit), while Annie is one of her troubled teenage patients, who ends up running away to begin life as an actor, first on the stage in New York, then later in a television series filmed in Los Angeles.
Having given this briefest outline, your cliché alert — if it’s anything like mine — may well be into the amber zone. It probably won’t help if I tell you there’s a couple of deaths, a couple of abortions, at least two failed marriages, a lesbian love affair, self-harm and a threatened legal action. But one of the strengths of the novel is Ohlin’s storytelling ability. She gives all her characters strong (and convincing) back stories and then propels them into life’s ups and downs and twists and turns, so that you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen to them next.
And she’s not bogged down by flowery or showy prose. Indeed, I found this novel slipped down like hot chocolate, although I could never quite shake the feeling that I was reading nothing more than a tame soap opera.
When the book opens, it is 1996 and Grace is out cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, Montreal, when she falls over a man, who is “flung across the trail with his head half buried in the snow”. Initially, she thinks he may have had a heart attack or a stroke, but then she sees a rope around his neck and realises he has attempted suicide — and survived.
Cue an emergency trip to hospital, where the man — John Tugwell, better known as Tug — is treated for cuts, bruises and a sprained ankle. Medical staff assume Grace is Tug’s wife, and Tug doesn’t disabuse them of the notion. Indeed, he actually tells them the suicide attempt was just a joke to see “what she’d say”.
Tugwell jerked a thumb in Grace’s direction. His voice was painfully rasped and he swallowed visibly after he spoke, but then he modulated it to a tone of playful wryness. ‘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.’
Grace goes along with this ruse, takes Tug home and over the course of the novel — and her better judgement — develops a romantic relationship with him.
Montreal, New York and the Arctic Circle
The book then shoots forward to New York, 2002, where we meet troubled, isolated and hard-as-rock Annie, who, as a teenager used to cut herself. Now, a fledgling actor, she uses her good looks and sexuality to get what she wants. But lest we think she’s entirely shallow, she takes in a homeless young woman and lets her decamp on the sofa for what turns out to be about six months.
By chapter three, we are in Iqualuit (in the Arctic circle) and it is 2006. Here we meet nice guy Mitch, on the run from a relationship — with the “sexy and brilliantly smart” lawyer Martine and her autistic son, Mathieu — that isn’t working out as he would like.
He did this once before, when he separated from Grace, whom he decided he no longer loved, even though he loved “her values, her personality, her dreams”. In the remote community of Nunavut, he hopes to do something useful with his life by counselling troubled aboriginals.
Two novels in one?
As the novel progresses Mitch’s storyline intersects with Grace’s, when they meet up 10 years after their divorce and establish a tentative friendship. This is a brilliant device at allowing us to see the strengths and weaknesses of each character, to see how their shared history has come back to haunt them and how their failed marriage shaped their outlook and personality. It is somewhat ironic that both are therapists used to counselling others but unable to properly work through their own problems.
Annie’s story, however, almost reads like a separate novel entirely — and despite her tenuous connection to Grace I often wondered what she was doing in the book. That said, she’s a brilliant character and I enjoyed following her exploits from New York to Los Angeles and back again.
Probably the most frustrating character is Tug, because he’s so unknowable. I suspect that’s deliberate on Ohlin’s part, because it is his inability to express himself or to share emotions that draws Grace in — she’s determined to “crack” him. Of course, once she does, the result isn’t pretty — he’s been to Rwanda, hasn’t he, and what he saw has so traumatised him he can no longer function in the real world without closing down his emotional, caring side.
Presumably the book is called Inside because it is about what goes on inside each of these character’s heads, but it would have been more apt to call it Loneliness, or even Good Samaritan. Either way, if you like therapist novels, you may well enjoy this. And if you don’t mind contrived stories about humans floundering about, looking for something or someone to make them happy, add this one to your list.