What happens inside, behind closed doors, in private moments, and in minds and hearts: that’s the stuff of Alix Ohlin’s novel.
“‘He wouldn’t let me in,’ she said, ‘and I refused to stay out.'”
Mitch’s mother says that of his father.
She is not a character with whom readers spend a lot of time, but her statement resonates throughout Inside.
The characters with whom readers do spend time?
First, Grace, who is a therapist in Montreal, when readers meet her in 1996.
Next, Anne, to whom readers are introduced as one of Grace’s patients when Annie is a teenager.
And Mitch, whose first appearance is in Grace’s segment (she met him when he was a graduate student and she was beginning to study psychology), but readers meet him directly in Iqaluit, in 2006.
To varying degrees, each of these characters nestles in at least one of the other character’s narratives. Where there is not a tangible overlap, there is a thematic overlap.
Grace, Anne, and Mitch are all struggling with what is inside, with what they keep inside, with what is inside the people they love. Also under consideration? Outside. How it’s connected with inside, or the ways in which it’s disengaged, questions about how the break(s) occurred.
It’s a delicate balance. In life, and in the narrative.
“That’s how it went: one day lovely, the next flawed. In this respect, was it so much different from anybody else’s life?”
On a daily basis, perhaps not so much. One person’s life is a lot like another’s. There are ups and downs in working lives, romantic encounters, family life, and friendships: the details are interchangeable.
As Inside begins, the differences are apparent. Even the two therapists have starkly different workdays, from the outside.
(In under 300 pages, this novel manages to fully flesh out all three characters, complete with details about day-to-day life at home, work and their significant relationships: deftly drawn and wholly believable.)
Paradoxically, as the novel progresses, the insides begin to blur.
Some of the external differences remain distinct, though people’s lives echo and intersect in the narrative too, but the emotional strain and struggle is almost interchangeable.
Readers looking for plot will be frustrated by the shifting perspectives and the sense of disconnection that arises if you are only observing the outsides of the characters’ lives, which do overlap but not often enough to satisfy a plot-hungry reader.
The work’s cohesion builds from the shared experiences in characters’ insides. The bulk of the narrative’s action is internal, viewed through each of these three character’s experiences, and it is the gradual layering of emotional intensity, across their narratives, that roots Inside.
Each of the following passages is pulled from one character’s perspective, but altering the pronouns allows them to fit with or reflect the other characters’ experiences too:
“The gap between what he said and what she didn’t know swelled between them like a bubble that kept expanding; sometimes, when she reached out her arms to hold him, the bubble felt like all she could touch.”
“He would have been the perfect man for some other, better version of herself.”
“It felt not like a repetition of the previous triangle but a new version of it, from another angle. A pattern stretching across the recent years of his life.”
(I was equally attached to all three characters, and so completely inhabited the perspectives as drawn that I missed things that I should have seen, if I’d had a reader’s distance, and not been so engrossed in the story as relayed by the characters. In some ways this is wonderful, but there is a risk.)
Readers who enjoy psychological narrative, who appreciate stories preoccupied with “inside”, even when they aren’t overtly named as such, will be immediately at home with Alix Ohlin’s novel.
The risk, however, is that insides are messy; the stories are told by those who have survived, and while there are moments of elation, there are moments of devastation. In that respect, it’s not any different from anyone else’s life.
Late Nights on Air offered a northern radio announcer, perhaps there’s room for a northern therapist too? And interior narratives do have a chance, not only if you’re Alice Munro (who snagged the prize twice, for Runaway and Love of a Good Woman), but Bonnie Burnard’s A Good House and Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan managed it too. But so many of the books on this longlist are more heavily weighted towards “outside” that it seems to suggest a preference.
Characters weave in and out of times and places, but each segment is carefully identified. Nonetheless there is some piecing together for the reader to do because, by nature, the stories intersect. “It was one of many moments in which he realized, not with shock but nonetheless with horror, how much his private pain, the decision to divorce, had stubbornly refused to remain confined to his own life. It made him feel more guilty than ever.”
Used skillfully. Slight stylistic differences bolster each distinct voice, but mostly language is a vehicle for story with an occasional figurative burst. Someone has “a twinkle of braces that came and went, flashing in the soft light of the office lamp like signals from a faraway ship” (suitable for the Montreal setting, a port city); someone blew her nose goose-honkingly hard; Frobisher Bay is a bruise-colored expanse; and, someone’s apartment is quiet, still as a pond.
“…tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her — its clusters of green-spired churches and gray skyscrapers laid out, graspable, streets rolling down to the Old Port, and in either direction the bridges extending over the pale water of the St. Lawrence.” Each segment’s setting is sketched cleanly so that readers immediately feel the shift in dynamics (largely in Montreal, but several other settings as well). Nonetheless, the most significant setting is “inside”.
Readers who engage with this novel will do so from the inside-out. The event which unfolds in the novel’s opening pages is as action-packed as it gets, and even it is a beacon directing the novels’ focus back to the interior. Once readers are invested in the characters, the details (from their job satisfaction to their friendships) matter, but out of that context, the engagement will fracture.
You’re always more interested in ‘why’: mysteries which announce whodunnit on the first page are your favourite. You eat the middle of a Cadbury’s Cream Egg before you finish the shell. Stories about good-ness, like Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault intrigue you. You spend (a little) too much time in your own head.