Review: Inside By Alex Ohlin

As an MFA student, I find this book comforting.

Everyone in Alix Ohlin’s novel, Inside, contemplates the process of abandonment. Characters Grace, Mitch and Tug all walk out on marriages. Grace and Anne both have abortions; and later hardly remember how their unborn babies were conceived or how it felt to let them go. Tug moves swiftly in and out of Grace’s life – entering through a failed suicide attempt and leaving through a successful one. People, places, jobs and possessions vanish leaving only a strong sense of absence behind them. The ultimate disappearance, and the only one truly commemorated in the book, is that of over 2000 people who turned to smoke in the Twin Towers, shortly before Anne arrives as an actress to a bereft and changed New York City. Three characters act as the main storytellers of this novel – Grace, Anne and Mitch. The characters’ lives intertwine, and they appear again and again in different chapters, offering readers simultaneous perspective into their pasts and futures.

Reading Inside is an experience in patience and meditation. Things happen slowly, as in life, with very little quick and jumpy drama. This pacing and atmosphere make the novel engaging in an untraditional way. Rather than being riveted by a plotline that shifts and turns unexpectedly, readers follow a life as it transpires.

As an MFA student, I find this book comforting. Like most writers, when asked what I’m interested in writing about, the many answers that come to mind all fall under the vague, angst-filled category simply titled: Life. That’s what we all want, right? To figure life out. To write something so true that it hurts. When actually sitting down to perform the task, more often than not I find myself looking back at my own words and asking myself: will anyone care about this? How are my perceptions, experiences and imaginations of life of any interest to other people? And should there be more drama? The stuff that exciting fiction is made of? Is this too much like real life and not enough like a real novel?

Horrible and harrowing events – as well as exciting ones – happen all the time. But as in real life, they don’t always come with the clatter of applause or the audible gasp of shock. Real change is slow and unremarkable. It’s less like that one-of-a-kind breakthrough therapy session that happens once in a blue moon (if we’re really lucky) and more like the countless humdrum sessions we leave feeling almost as distraught as we did when we came in; the ones that eventually pile up and amount to a change in our attitudes, and therefore, our lives. It takes a few pages to realize that this normalcy can be engaging, but it is.

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