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Changing Track: Ohlin’s Tantalizing Tales

BOOK REVIEW: We Want What We Want by Alix Ohlin
Whistler writers fest book We want what we want. 2 jpg
We Want What We Want delivers a sampling plate of thorny relational questions, presented in tasty, bite-size chunks. Its author, Alix Ohlin, will moderate a brunch conversation at the Whistler Writers Festival on Sunday, Oct. 16.

We Want What We Want is a collection of short stories from two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, Alix Ohlin. The 13 discrete tales—there are no crossover characters—offer an experience akin to being thrown blindfolded from a plane and landing on a series of fertile, volcanic islands: each one distinct from the last, yet also connected, as if tethered to a seismic fault line of human contradiction.

Ohlin has an uncanny way of dropping the reader smack-bang in the middle of the action. In “Casino,” we land at the table of a tense, ritual booze-up between screwdriver-sipping sisters. In “Money, Geography, Youth,” we step off the plane with Vanessa, who returns home from a gap year in Ghana to discover that her father is engaged to her childhood best friend, and they’re living together in her family home. In “Taxonomy” we join Ed on a road trip to the house of his estranged dead wife, to meet his daughter’s previously unknown half-brother.

Other stories, such as “The Point of No Return,” “The Detectives” and “Nights Back Then,” deftly traverse the terrain of changing perspectives and emotions over time. This is an area of continued interest for Ohlin. In an interview with the CBC about her book, Dual Citizens, Ohlin said, “The self is a complicated thing, it’s protean and shifting ... One of the things that fascinates me about fiction, and stories, is the opportunity that it gives us to think about people at different stages of their lives.” How she manages to fit such explorations into 24 pages or less has to be read to be believed.

Each unique in narrative and context, the stories are nonetheless tied together with a consistent voice, each ending with a sentence or paragraph that evokes simultaneous feelings of loss and longing, hope and acceptance: an acknowledgement, without judgment, of human nature and the inevitability of personal failure.

Themes of questionable morality and ethical grey areas abound, and are directly addressed in “Service Intelligence.” The story begins with a university drop-out telling us about a philosophy class she enjoyed, where the age-old trolley question is posed, the “famous conundrum involving whether you’d kill one person to save a bunch of others.”

Ohlin proposes, across all 13 stories, that the answer to the trolley question might come down to personal desire: that despite our best efforts at detached thought, our personal decisions will ultimately be driven by emotion. The guru of “The Brooks Brothers Guru” surmises that “... human desire cause[s] pain and difficulty in the world, but our will is intractable. We want what we want. So what do we do about this? How do we find relief?”

Carefully crafted to linger on the palate, We Want What We Want delivers a sampling plate of thorny relational questions, presented in tasty, bite-size chunks.

Kate Heskett is an award-winning poet and writer. They live in Whistler and are working on their first novel.

Moderator Alix Ohlin will be at the Whistler Writers Festival on Sunday, October 16 at 11 a.m. for brunch and an insightful, wide-ranging conversation with authors Eden Robinson (Return of the Trickster), Robert Jones Jr. (The Prophets), M.G. Vassanji (What You Are), George Elliott Clarke (Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir) and Omar El Akkad (What Strange Paradise). Tickets are available for purchase here