Layers of meaning


Layers of meaning

Alix Ohlin

Quercus £16.99,

eBook €(not available)

Review: Liam Heylin

A Montreal psychiatrist hits some kind of speed bump while skiing. The bump is in fact a man lying in the snow after a failed suicide attempt. The psychiatrist, Grace, takes him to hospital but she cannot leave it at that.

Another strand of this sincere and thoughtfully well-written novel by Montreal writer Alix Ohlin opens on the stairway of an apartment building when a young actress similarly almost falls over a bump on the landing. On closer examination it turns out that this bump is a young girl who has run away from home.

The actress, Annie, takes the girl in, initially to sleep for a night on her couch. But as time goes by, the girl, who is pregnant, is joined by her boyfriend. Annie finds herself with an assumed sense of responsibility for the burgeoning family.

Ohlin severely tests the idea that there is more fulfilment in giving than in receiving. The gratitude and growth of those receiving all the hand-outs and care is not immediately evident. And the baggage taken on by those offering the help often threatens to submerge them. There is a sense in some of the narrative threads that these central characters offering a helping hand are actually the ones in need of support.

A third strand of the book is that of Mitch, a divorced counsellor, who meanders back into the life of his wife with her daughter from another relationship.

Initial doubts about the narrative being chopped a bit too schematically fade as the characters develop. The early concern was that Ohlin, who has also written short stories, might have been coming at the novel as something of a patchwork. But she is better than that and the different strands tie up interestingly.

The theme is really to the fore. The characters feel like they are overstretching themselves as people by trying to mind others to the detriment of themselves. The question of whether they are being ripped off or enriched echoes throughout.

There is too much human complexity woven into the stories for them to feel like they are simply serving a theme. By the latter half of the book the simple title has layers of possible meanings: A person’s psyche, a womb, or a home.

Going back to those moments where needy characters are almost tripped over, it looked like the reader was in for an Anne Tyler kind of book where some quirky circumstance gives way to a cornucopia of comical and tragic events. Some of that kind of texture is here but the tone is more earnest than humorous.

If Ohlin doesn’t tend to find humour when she digs into her stories she does capture the mixed and muddled psychology of characters who, if they are lucky, find something in the give and take of human life that lifts them to happiness, or something like it.

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