Monday, 4 June 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Alix Ohlin's 'Inside'

   Two of these images are of me on vacation a few weeks ago.
   The sand? Imagine shortbread cookies baked to perfection and then crumbled into fine powder. The ocean was stunning blues, bathwater warm, and the onslaught of crashing waves disguised a fearsome undertow. The resort's bars also stocked enough alcohol to keep Russian soldiers drunk for months; I drank my first banana daiquiri, but skipped getting corn rows in my hair.
   Like any place exclusively created to attract tourism dollars, Cancun has an artificiality that can be off-putting. (As was the poolside fact that every second person was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I'm not exaggerating.)
   This blog is not geared toward analyses of tourism or the politics of
all-inclusive resorts; it's for literature. Accordingly, the snapshots show me reading; and I read pools, reclining on beach chairs, in bed, and scrunched up on an uncomfortable balcony chair.
   I was reading Inside, by Alix Ohlin, an author whose first novel (The Missing Person, which I'm reading now) I'd managed to miss. (I then read her excellent Signs and Wonders, being published at the same time as Inside.)
   I began reading Inside soon after take-off above Vancouver. The story begins with weird accidental meeting in snowy Montreal; a therapist, skiing in a park to relieve stress, nearly runs over a dark lump in the snow. The lump turns out to be a man whose suicide attempt failed. A fraught love affair ensues. "From bad to worse" covers the trajectory.
   Between the novel's first pages and the last, I laughed often. Ohlin has a terrific sense of humour and when she's being satiric you imagine that hanging out with her and people-watching would be memorable. Later scenes in NYC and LA cover the familiar territory of a beautiful actress sleeping her way into roles, but Ohlin's account is hilarious, fresh, and biting.
   Whether she's offering cutting insights about romantic relationships or sleazeball men, she crafts scenes that sadden you only because they end so quickly.
   The photos don't capture my blubbering, or Alex (whose company paid for our vacation) asking me, "Now what happened?" But I sprouted tears during numerous scenes. Ohlin writes little miracles of comedy in her novel, but she's arguably better with moments of searingly intense sadness: the suicide of one boy and the awful hospital death of another; love turning sour and bitter; attempts—futile—being made over and again to fix a problem that seems fated to cause misery.
   It's a terrific novel.
   On p. 258 (the final page) and awash in emotions, I experienced my first and only complaint with Ohlin's story: I wanted it to stretch out for another hundred pages.

[The official review of Inside and Signs and Wonders appeared in The National Post.]

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