Stranger Debris

Reviewed by Hannah McGregor

On the first page of Alix Ohlin’s Inside, Montreal-based therapist Grace is cross-country skiing on Mount Royal when she comes across the unconscious form of a man who has tried, and failed, to hang himself: “At first glance, she mistook him for something else. . . . [S]he’d found stranger debris across her path.” The debris left, or constituted, by the unexpected arrival of a stranger in one’s life is the driving concern of Ohlin’s new novel, in which three intertwined characters have their carefully regulated lives thrown into disarray. Grace forms an intense connection with Tug, drawn to the inscrutability of his past; her former patient, Anne, loses control of her New York apartment when she lets a teenage runaway move in; and Grace’s ex-husband Mitch, also a therapist, is shattered by his failure to help a young man in Iqualuit.

The unpredictable force of the stranger is emphasized by the novel’s temporal shifts: Grace’s story takes place in 1996, Anne’s in 2002, and Mitch’s in 2006. This structural movement back and forth in time both emphasizes the long-term repercussions of a single encounter and resists any sense of narrative inevitability or teleology. When Grace reappears in Mitch’s story, ten years after her first encounter with Tug, the details of what has happened in the intervening decade are as much a mystery to the reader as they are to her ex-husband. This pervading sense of unknowing makes Inside intensely readable, taking on a dimension of the mystery thriller even while resisting pat or satisfying revelations. When Tug finally confesses to Grace the trigger for his attempted suicide—the ongoing trauma of his presence in Kigali as an NGO worker during the Rwandan genocide—she finds herself doubting the tidiness of this narrative: “She didn’t know if Rwanda had anything to do with it. The darkness … might have been inside him all along… .”

At the root of the novel is the unknowability of the stranger, which has as a corollary the absoluteness of hospitality as an ethical demand. As Grace, Anne, and Mitch open themselves up to the uncontrollable impact of others, they realize that the dangers of trust and the pleasures of intimacy are two sides of the same coin. The moment in which the ruthlessly manipulative and isolated Anne opens her home to a girl she does not know—an openness that eventually extends to giving up her own bedroom to the girl, her boyfriend, and their unborn child—is perhaps the most striking image of what it means, in Ohlin’s novel, to let someone inside. But the space of the inside, and the damage or healing the stranger can enact there, is both literal and metaphorical, encompassing the home as well as the heart.

The unpredictable force of the stranger and the ethical challenge of hospitality are also central to Susan Glickman’s The Tale-Teller, which begins with the arrival of the mysterious Esther in the carefully regulated colony of New France in 1738. Esther has disguised herself as a boy, and while this deception is uncovered instantly, her further deception—that she is also Jewish—remains a secret throughout much of the novel, a secret she protects by spinning a complex Scheherazade-like past for herself involving shipwrecks and pirates and harem-escapes. The narrative is split between the realist historical narrative of Esther Brandeau, based on archival documents researched by the academically-trained Glickman, and Esther’s fantastical first-person stories, told in an engagingly intimate tone with a non-linearity and geographical range that contrasts markedly with the protagonist’s own cramped existence.

Esther’s stories are a carefully devised tactic, wielded in the face of her total lack of agency as a woman and a racialized minority. In both style and content they revel in mobility and subversion: she is raised by apes, refusing the strict division between the animal and the human; her adopted father, a sailor named Joaquin, falls in love with a slave woman when he is temporarily blinded, a metaphorical forgetting of race as a learned category. It is not surprising that Esther’s fantasy world is more appealing than the one she actually resides in, in which petty French officials use her as a pawn in their struggles for power and keep her captive throughout the long Quebec winter. Glickman’s imagination shines in these passages, unmoored from the documents that root the historical half of her novel. Appropriately enough, the restrictions of historical fact are felt at the level of narrative much as Esther feels the ties of her own oppressive social world; both language and subjects are freed by the unbounded imagination.

As the narrative proceeds, however, even Esther’s subversive imagination encounters its limits. The kindly Hocquart in whose home she is equal parts captive and guest, is originally enchanted by her stories and her fine recipe for chocolate, both exotic temptations in their own right. Eventually, however, her stories demand too much of him: “Far worse than the seduction of the stories themselves was how they challenged his convictions. If he accepted what Esther said as true, his beliefs about the world would be put in doubt. In her version of reality slaves deserved freedom, infidels were as good as Christians, and women became the equals of men.” Esther’s stories similarly fail to have the desired impact on the Ursuline nuns with whom she is lodged once her true identity, as the daughter of a Jewish merchant, is discovered. And when she attempts to use her tales to distract the inmates of the lunatic ward where she is made to work, she discovers that the destabilization of reality that comforts her only agitates those who already struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy.

The Tale-Teller is a novel both fascinated with the power of stories and aware of their limitations. As the period of Esther’s life illuminated by archival documents comes to an end, the historical woman and the fictional character slip beyond the reader’s view, the story’s control, and New France’s borders. The debris left by the stranger, in this case, is an awareness of Canada’s colonial history as a story not only of violent invasion but also of a failure to enact the ethics and politics of hospitality.

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