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Signs and Wonders

by Alix Ohlin

It’s always a good sign when a book that opens with an attempted suicide still manages to elicit a surprised chuckle from the reader by page eight. Such is the complex, delightful nature of Alix Ohlin’s writing. The Montreal-born author of a previous novel (The Missing Person) and short story collection (Babylon) has her well-honed literary talents on full display with her latest offerings, a duo of long and short fiction, released simultaneously in Canada by House of Anansi Press.

Ohlin’s new novel, Inside, opens in Montreal in 1996. While cross-country skiing one evening, Grace, a therapist by profession, literally falls over the prone body of a man who has tried unsuccessfully to hang himself. Once “the kind of child who brought home injured birds and tried to nurse them back to health,” Grace immediately goes into crisis mode. She accompanies the man, called Tug, to the hospital, then poses as his therapist to maintain access. Grace finds herself torn between professional interest and an inexplicable attraction to Tug. The guffaw comes when Tug, who to this point has ignored Grace almost completely, explains to the attending doctor that his would-be suicide was simply a marital squabble gone awry: “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.”

This scenario introduces Ohlin’s extremely readable blend of poignancy and sardonic humour, and sets the tone for the rest of the book. The novel follows three interconnected story strands: one featuring Grace and Tug; one featuring Annie, a patient of Grace’s; and one featuring Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband. In each of these storylines, Ohlin explores the consequences of helping another individual. Grace’s initial spark with Tug develops somewhat predictably (though no less satisfactorily) into a relationship the reader suspects, correctly, will not end well. Annie, an actor in New York City, stumbles upon a homeless teen in her apartment lobby and, almost by accident, ends up giving her a home, both literally and figuratively. Mitch, also a therapist, ultimately fails in his attempt to help a troubled boy in an isolated Arctic community.

All of these characters make sacrifices, though they spend much of the book perplexed by their own choices and the circumstances that have led them to the places they find themselves in. They are fickle, selfish, and pathetic, but also big-hearted. Ultimately, they are human; whether the reader likes them or not doesn’t really matter, because they are so damned easy to relate to, and are presented in such head-shakingly honest ways that one can’t help but be sucked into the vortex of their lives.

This same empathetic draw is present in the stories in Signs and Wonders. The titular story opens with the line, “So the important thing to know from the start is that she was miserable.” The personality contained in the single word “so” (which an unwise editor would have fought to eliminate) tells the reader everything about Ohlin’s style: it is conversational, irreverent, and stealthily humorous.

As with the majority of the collection’s 16 stories, the focus here is on the breakdown of a relationship. After 26 years of marriage, Kathleen realizes that she hates her husband, Terence, and discovers the feeling is mutual. The pair is happily planning a divorce when Terence is viciously beaten, and Kathleen is suddenly faced with the prospect of tending to him indefinitely. Defeated and feeling very alone, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Fleur Mason, a co-worker she despises for various reasons, not least “the profound and unforgivable stupidity of her name.”

In “Who Do You Love,” one of only a handful of stories told in the first person, the protagonist, Janet, describes how, following her divorce, she came to the conclusion that she wasn’t relationship material. The dreams she had before getting married “were meant for other people, not for me, in the same way that I just can’t wear orange.” Lines like this exemplify Ohlin’s ability to blend pathos with acerbic wit, preventing these stories of loss, despair, and heartbreak from becoming maudlin or overwrought.

Ohlin’s voice is strong and lends her writing a kind of omnipotence. The effect is oddly comforting, and doesn’t detract from character or plot development in the least. In fact, my only minor quibble with Signs and Wonders is that the stories, if read in rapid succession, may cause the reader to suffer from divorce-story burnout. A better approach, as Mavis Gallant would recommend, is to savour each entry on its own, take a break, then return for more of an excellent thing.