When someone entitles a book Signs and Wonders–a phrase which I recently discovered comes from Passover, and is in Elie Wiesel’s A Passover Haggadah–we think we are prepared ahead of time for unusual events and mysterious happenings. But the fact of the matter is that Alix Ohlin illuminates the everyday event and ordinary life by showing the connection between them and the astonishing and predictive, the almost magical traces that we often call “coincidence” because we are afraid to call them “fate.” There are sixteen different fairly short stories in this book, and in every one of them we see people engaged in lives that are like those we know from our own experience or witness around us. But when we retell these sorts of events at parties, or gatherings, or coffee klatches with our friends, what obsesses us often is the magical trace, the thing that makes us feel “I should have known,” “It now looks so obvious,” “Of course, that was what had to happen.”
The title story, “Signs and Wonders,” has preeminent place in the book, coming at the very first possibly because of its thematic content. Just as one place of emphasis is the very last (and Alice Munro’s book Too Much Happiness, which I recently reviewed, had its title story in that ultimate position), so Alix Ohlin, another Canadian writer of note, puts her title story at the first. Briefly, the story is about an academic marriage which has run its course; but the wife cannot divorce the husband immediately because he is in an accident, and in all charity she cannot end things while he is in a coma. When their adult son, who has problems of his own, is informed of their decision to divorce after the husband returns to health, he becomes hysterical, and only the prayer intervention of a woman whom the wife has always hated and whose pet bird she tried to release into hostile surroundings helps him. As we are told in the last few sentences of the story, as the wife ponders in amazement at the fact of prayer come into their lives, “She couldn’t decipher [the signs and wonders]; she couldn’t read her life that way….But she could feel them all around her, the questions of her life, at times beating like wings, at times soaring clearly through the air, and she could only wonder how it was that she had never felt them before.”
As we continue throughout the book, we see other lives suddenly taken at a moment of attentive arrest in which “the beating of wings” of key or significant happenings can be witnessed. There’s a doctor dating a nurse, who “helps” her returned vet brother out of his addictive life, and who later witnesses something, a moment in time, which reminds him forcibly of the brother’s perspective, and his words, too late. There’s a stepmother who has a vision of one of her stepchildren dying, which she follows up on in spite of all pressure to the contrary, with astounding results. Two women in a park, superficially alike and dressed similarly, experience a moment of fate when one of them is mistaken for the other, and shot. Former assistants and interns of various businesses in New York hear of the death of a friend, and realize abruptly what their former life was like. And so on through the rest of the sixteen deceptively simple stories. Though death is sometimes the end or a major event in these stories, it is not really death in a depressing sense that these stories are “about”: Ohlin wants us to pay attention to other things as well.
As I think I’ve made obvious, the lives described in the book are those of people anyone might know, well-polished surfaces in which anyone might recognize his or her own face. What is crucial to each story, however, is the sudden intrusion of what Bob Dylan called “a simple twist of fate,” a funny or poignant or simply “there” little incident or fact which proves decisive in the lives of those depicted.
I said these stories are “deceptively simple,” and I think this is the mot juste for the author’s perspective and voice as well. It would take much longer than I have here, I think, to penetrate thoroughly all the rhetorical tactics and narrative ploys and gambits she uses to get her points across. But I think at least one point she makes is quite clear and lucid, and that is that we can never see the shape our lives are taking or the conclusion they are likely to have if we are too caught up in the moment or the quarrel or the obsession to take a look. And if we do look, and really see, what we observe may indeed be a sign, and a wonder.