By Alix Ohlin
Knopf, 258 pp., $25
SIGNS AND WONDERS
By Alix Ohlin
Vintage, 261 pp., paperback, $15
Alix Ohlin’s wondrously engrossing second novel, “Inside,” and her second collection, “Signs and Wonders,” display her characteristic strengths — dynamic plots, keenly observed settings, and characters so idiosyncratic, ambivalent, and contradictory they could be your family, your neighbors, people you work with. She is particularly insightful when portraying couples navigating the raw and unpredictable emotional landscape of separation and divorce.
Ohlin tends to plunge right into the heart of the action. In the opening section of “Inside,’’ set in Montreal in 1996, Grace, a therapist who is one of four main characters in the novel, is cross-country skiing on Mount Royal. She is enjoying the “muffled silence and solitude” when she runs into a man on the ground. Kneeling to check his pulse, she sees the rope around his neck. For reasons she is unclear about herself, she follows Tug, the failed suicide, to the hospital, helps sign him out, drives him home, and stays the night to make sure he doesn’t try again.
Ohlin traces their growing relationship in a series of finely wrought scenes, shifting backward and forward in time, offering many surprises. There is a ringing authenticity to the ways in which Grace and Tug, both gun-shy after failed marriages, collide, connect, spin apart, and try again. Equally solid are the passages in which Ohlin traces the roots of Grace’s empathy for the suffering, and of Tug’s despair over what he had witnessed as an aid worker in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
Ohlin also follows Anne, one of Grace’s patients, from age 16, in 1996, into early adulthood when she is living on New York’s Lower East Side, building a career as an actress. Anne’s precarious childhood has made her a master of deception; her acting is fueled by the “secret high that came from thinking none of them knew her at all.”
Anne’s intriguing flaws include the inability to say no to a homeless pregnant runaway named Hilary, who moves into her apartment with her boyfriend, Alan. When she learns that everything Hilary said about her family was a lie, Anne is not surprised. “[S]he knew Hilary and had once been just like her, and therefore understood how fluidly lies come, how easily they spill from you once you get into the habit of telling them.”
Finally there is Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband, newly involved with Martine, the single mother of an autistic boy. Feeling skittish, he decides to spend the summer of 2006 as a therapist among the Inuit. Iqaluit is a place where he had been happy the summer he had separated from Grace. “The worst thing about the divorce was that he had lost any sense of himself as a decent person,” Ohlin writes. The Arctic had been “a refuge, a clean slate.”
As he works with Thomasie, a grieving Inuit teenager whose mother is in a coma after passing out in the snow, his sister dead on the same disastrous evening, Mitch sees how time has narrowed the options for the Inuit. Once he had encouraged Thomasie’s father to play basketball; now the kids stayed inside playing video games and drugs seemed the only way out.
As she brings the four strands of her novel to a resonant and haunting conclusion woven of the tragic, the accidental, and the unexpected, Ohlin underscores Grace’s dilemma: “What was worse than having to take responsibility for everything you did or felt or said? For the way your actions radiated out to change not just your own life, but those of the people around you?”
The 16 stories in “Signs and Wonders’’ are equally satisfying.
In “Forks,” a newly single young doctor working at a clinic in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania gets involved with the head nurse and comes to have an unexpected influence on her brother, a homeless Afghani war veteran who lost his left foot to an IED and is now addicted to painkillers.
“Vigo Park” plays with a literary convention: “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.” (Ohlin’s twist: What you don’t know before the end is which woman in the red coat it is going to kill.)
In the title story, Kathleen, 49, a tenured professor at a small college in suburban Philadelphia, and her husband Terence, 52, the department head, are on the verge of a divorce after 26 years. A younger colleague, Fleur Mason, becomes the focus for Kathleen’s discontent. “Energized by hate,” Kathleen frees the parakeet Fleur keeps in her office. Then bam! Terence is attacked by a crazed carjacker yelling “Pterodactyl!” and ends up in a coma. Kathleen’s only visitor as she stands watch over her husband in the months that follow? Fleur.
Ohlin writes of her story’s mysteries: “Dear God, Kathleen thought. Is this the game we’re playing now? The accident, the coma, Fleur’s visits, the pterodactyl? Are these signs and wonders? And if so, what do they mean?”
The question of meaning hovers over Ohlin’s work. She has a rare gift for examining the confusions of the 21st century, exploring the ways in which addictions, afflictions, attractions, and random impulses shape our lives. Her intense and beautifully shaped new novel and stories offer tentative yet illuminating answers.
Jane Ciabattari, who has contributed to the New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast and others, is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.