There are two skilled therapists in Alix Ohlin's intriguing new novel – and neither has any idea how to live his or her own life.

"The therapist's prerogative was sometimes to put the blinders back on," as one of them puts it in Ohlin's book, oh-so-aptly titled "Inside."

This is Grace (once married to Mitch), a competent, sought-after therapist who lives "alone now, in a two-bedroom apartment in Notre-Dame de Grβce. She'd been on some dates since the divorce, but nothing had taken.

"She was 35 and thought that maybe she just wasn't the marrying kind – a statement she would have dismissed, or at least raised an eyebrow at, if it came from a client."

Thus Ohlin sets the stage for a psychological game of musical chairs that, if not entirely satisfying, is a fascinating read.

Set largely in Montreal (with interludes in Scotland, Rwanda, New York, Los Angeles and the Canadian arctic), the novel begins with a stunning cross-country ski scene during which Grace finds a stranger who has tried to hang himself from a tree on Montreal's Mont Royal.

The mountain, she tells herself, "was the one place where she felt at peace, especially in winter, when tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her – its clusters of green-spired churches and gray sky-scrapers 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 …"

But now there is something, indeed someone, on her path – a man (John Tugwell, known as "Tug") who requires rescue. Grace summons help and, later, at Montreal General, lets Tug know, "If you want to talk, I can listen."

What follows is a dance of minds – Grace's, Tug's, Mitch's, and that of an actress named Anne.

They are all intense, introspective and unhappy individuals. Each has been scarred by something traumatic in his or her past. They are all running away – from, it goes without saying, themselves.

Ohlin, to her credit, simply lets them. With deceptively simple prose, she lets them live, and relive, the terrors at the cores of their beings.

There are particularly touching portions, with Tug in Kigali, and Mitch in Iqaluit – and some odd sections involving Anne (who somehow never gels in the book).

Both Tug and Mitch are drawn, not entirely for altruistic reasons, to help those most in need in faraway forlorn nations – and it is Tug who concludes, over time, "I'm not that person anymore. I need to get used to life in the comfortable nations."

"Comfortable nations?" Grace asks.

"I heard an aid worker say that once," Tug explains. "He said the hardest part wasn't being over there but coming back. Supermarkets. Cars everywhere. Too many choices. That kind of thing."

There are dark moments here, and one protagonist will find them too much. But there are also lovely moments, even some of contentment – shared weekend mornings, being with children, reading the Sunday paper.

Mitch at one point visits Malcolm, a brother he deems dull, and finds Malcolm's "sole talent, one he'd had since childhood, was the best imaginable, and it had surrounded him his entire life, flexible, capacious, grown to embrace his wife, their family, their house, and, when he was around, even his brother.

He had the gift of being happy."

Mitch himself, a therapist specializing in addictions, describes a normal day of "counseling, unemployment sagas, eviction nightmares … He knew how to help people break such stories down into their composite elements and start to reconfigure them. He saw his job as gently prying their fingers from their own throats."

But of course Mitch can't pry his own fingers from his own throat. Nor can Grace, nor Tug, nor Anne – and that is a good part of Ohlin's point here. The other part has to do with intimacy and growth, the kind that only happens "inside."

Inside is where Ohlin is at her best, taking her readers with her into her protagonists' complicated, self-involved and overly analytic brains.

Where she is not at her best is in giving us Anne, an ultimately undeveloped and extraneous character (at least beside Grace, Tug and Mitch).

Ohlin also misses (and this is a small quibble) in using chapter titles that are confusing – a place and a date when a name and a date would be infinitely better.

She also stays too short a time in the book's non-Montreal venues to make any difference where her characters are.

Montreal gets its due, however, particularly in the novel's winter scenes, and its references to Schwartz's and Loblaws, as well as its seamless inclusion of the French language in a number of places.

There is the temptation, reading "Inside," to chide the therapists for not seeing how their overthinking sucks the possibility of joy from their lives; for leading personal lives that are, at best, immature.

There is also the nagging question: Could the old adage be true, that those who need therapy become therapists?

In the end, "Inside" is worth all the mind battles, the reluctance of the intellect to honor the heart.

At least two of Ohlin's creations are ready to do what most therapists urge their clients to do – and that is life's time-honored way: Simply stop the damn wavering, and take the risk!

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.



By Alix Ohlin


258 pages, $25