Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

A reader’s response to Alix Ohlin’s Signs and Wonders (2012)

Wondering who Sandra is, and why she’s sharing her thoughts about these stories here? I briefly introduced her the other day, and she has read two other Anansi works, which she will be chatting about, before this month’s end.

Read on: it seems that this collection was, indeed, a wonder, if not also a sign.

*** *** ***

House of Anansi, 2012

This is the fourth sentence in the eponymous story of this collection and is the sort of sentence that kept me reading and reading and reading:

“Then they had a baby, who was beautiful and perfect, then later on became less beautiful, less perfect, in fact troubled, for a time Ritalin and methamphetamine addicted, but subsequently, amazingly, pulled himself together and managed, despite the rocky years, to graduate from college and find a decent job at a zoo, tending to the turtles.”

Even though I know that short stories are best digested slowly over an extended time period, I could not stop and finished the collection in less than two days.

The above was Kathleen speaking: “ forty-nine years old and a tenured professor of American literature at a college in suburban Philadelphia.”

The story begins in a staff meeting about “whether or not to allow English majors to graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare”. Kathleen’s husband Terrance is the Chair and Kathleen “felt obligated to support her husband.” The interactions of the meeting leave Kathleen irritable particularly towards Fleur Mason who is “young, square-shouldered, and passionate” and wore ruffled skirts and lace blouses “ and was also “single and thirty-seven” with “a laugh like a demented clown’s” which “rose too suddenly and lingered too long.”

After the meeting Kathleen goes to Fleur’s office (she has a key because it was once her office) and removes Fleur’s parakeet from its cage and lets it loose into the hallway. Then she went home and cooked supper. She thought about what she had done and felt remorse but was still angry.

“At that moment, she understood – how belatedly! – that she detested not Fleur but herself, her own life, and most particularly her husband and his relentless occupation of that life. And that she’d hated all of this for a very long time.”

When their son gets a job off in California, Kathleen suggests to Terry that they get a divorce and they decided to do so at the end of that semester. They each went looking for houses. Terry is attacked by a guy in a hoodie yelling “Pterodactyl! Pterodactyl!” Kathleen wonders later was this the first sign?

Ohlin doesn’t presume to offer answers…in fact, like Kathleen, we are often left with questions in her stories. For this reader, this is the attraction and the source of the drive to move on to the next story. What will it be about? What will happen? Why?

A sign by way of a dream opens “The Stepmother’s Story” and contributes directly to its ending. Judith and Jason had both experienced unpleasant divorces. Judith had encouraged a vacation in Scotland, reasoning that it might bring them all together (Jason had two children, Lucas and Molly) as a family.

Visiting the top of the Walter Scott memorial, they lose track of Lucas. When an hour or two had passed, the police were contacted. “What to do in a foreign city where your child could be anywhere?” Jason and his daughter Molly draw apart from Judith. He suggests calling his ex-wife Paulina: “She’ll know what to do.” Judith “felt their future buckle between the weight of his words.” As a last resort, she dares to tell Jason about the dream she had on the plane. She is rebuffed and dismissed.

How important are dreams and hunches in our lives? Ohlin is suggesting we should pay attention to them.

Alix Ohlin

“Vigo Park” gives the reader a very clear sign in its opening sentence: “There’s a gun at the beginning of this story, placed here so that you know it’s going to go off by the end.” Whose gun? It is “in the pocket of a man on the 24 bus, which is heading to Vigo Park.” Who will be at the park? Why is the man going to Vigo Park? “This isn’t some kind of mystery”, Ohlin tells us.

“You think this is a story about coincidence and/or injustice and/or fate, about the extraordinarily wrong actions of ordinary people. But you’re wrong.” What is it about?

In “Three Little Maids”, Ohlin draws a succinct portrait of divorced parents attending a play in which their daughter is acting. In the car, the reader can feel the tension. George “put on some screeching jazz music, the kind he knew she hated…this was a war of gestures both habitual and genuinely annoying.”

Ohlin is adept at establishing relational status early within the story line. This story is not about the play but rather a dramatic struggle between Ruth, the ex-wife and Marlena, the present wife and Jennie, the daughter. It’s about keeping former families separate and the times when that separation is no longer valid. Ruth realizes “each of them needed him: to push against, to argue with, to care for.”

Valuable insights, complete honesty.

In all of the stories in this collection, Ohlin deftly delineates the elements in relational situations while writing realistic dialogue and pulling us into her plots with her first sentence or two. Her stories teach as well as entertain.

*** *** ***

Project Notes:
Day 25 of 45: Elsewhere I have mentioned that I am reading, daily, from Derek McCormack’s Christmas Days. It is like an advent calendar on the page. (What could be better. Except chocolate. Obviously.) I’ll have more to say about it, you guessed it, on December 25th, but if you’re curious, you can find it on House of Anansi’s page here (it’s also part of their 30% off sale, if you need another nudge), along with a lovely collection for all ages, The Winter Book, also seasonally appropriate.

I haven’t read Ohlin’s collection yet myself, but I did enjoy Inside, and I am off to check out these four stories at least. How about you? Have you read her work before? Or are you considering it?

5 comments to A reader’s response to Alix Ohlin’s Signs and Wonders (2012)

  • I have heard that exact laugh before, so I know exactly what you are talking about. This collection sounds intense, and like something that I would love to read. I am addicted and I haven’t even gotten my hands on the book! Very nice review today, as always :) You are a very evocative writer.

  • Sandra

    Ohlin did get that laugh description just right eh? The collection is intense as you have discerned and definitely addictive. I hope you get to try it soon and also Ohlin’s Inside. I read the latter before the short stories and was so happy to go on with more of Ohlin’s work. Thanks for weighing in on this one.

  • Thanks for your thoughts on the collection, Sandra (and I think you really would enjoy it, Zibilee: there’s a punchiness to her style that you’d find truly addictive).

    What I thought was truly remarkable about these stories was the element of the unpredictable. At times you truly feel that you *know* these characters and the situations they inhabit, but then Ohlin inserts a jolt. I actually had to re-read the last two pages of one of the stories you’ve discussed, Sandra, three times, because I simply could not believe what I was reading (and, yet, it was realistic, just surprising). I shan’t say which story, but I bet you know.

  • This collection needs to be added to my TBR list. I liked her novel inside, but it looks like I may like the collection a lot more. Also, if I’m buried alive in books from mount TBR, I’ll blame you. You always have such interesting books posted and a lot of books, especially Can Lit are added to my lists because of you.

    • Thanks, Jules! The Canlit shelves on my GR are sure bulging, and even though I feel like it forms the bulk of my reading, I also feel like the TBR titles vastly outweigh what I have read, so I’m glad to spread some of that around to other obsessive types. And I actually DO think that you will enjoy this collection more than Inside. I’ll be interested to see if my guess is right!

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