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Apr 27

Book Review: The Race by Nina Allan

What’s It About

The back cover copy of The Race would lead you to believe that the entire novel is set on the coastal town of Sapphire, suffering a slow decline from fracking and ecological disaster.  And while that’s partly true, Sapphire and its denizens only comprise a fourth of the novel.  In actual fact The Race consists of four novellas that are linked in an unexpected way.

Should I Read It?

Yes.  Absolutely.

This is a remarkable début novel on a number of levels.  For one there’s the gorgeous, measured writing.  I’d come to expect this from Nina Allan, having read her shorter fiction, but it was pleasing to see how she modulated the tone and rhythm of her prose depending on the story and point of view character.  And then there’s Allan’s head-spinning treatment of science fiction – aptly described by Dan Hartland, in his Strange Horizon review, as “a queasy relationship to genre” – which at first seems to be mocking the slap-dash and incoherent world building of “near future” genre novels and then completely turns that idea on its head.

If the above sounds nebulous, it’s because I recommend you come to this novel cold.  Afterwards you can read both my commentary below and Dan’s excellent review.

Representative Paragraph

My mother, Anne Allerton, walked out on the town and on our family when I was fifteen. After she left, my brother Del, whose nickname is Yellow, went a little bit crazy. He was crazy before, most likely – it was just that our mother leaving made his madness more obvious. I was scared of Del then, for a while, not because of anything he did especially but because of the thoughts he had. I could sense those thoughts in him, burrowing away beneath the surface of his mind like venomous worms. I swear Del sometimes thought of killing me, not because he wanted me dead but because he was desperate to find out what killing felt like.

Commentary

At first there’s nothing particularly innovative about the setting of “Jenna” – the first of four novellas that comprise The Race.  Like a good chunk of slow apocalypse fiction – and by Christ I’ve read plenty over the last 12 months – Nina Allan’s description of a dying Earth draws heavily on the imagery of death and decay:

I was shocked to see that the southern outskirts of the city still showed signs of bomb damage – vast craters full of oil-scummed water, acres of burned-out warehouses. Off to one side I spotted one of the old furnace chimneys. It stood alone amidst the ruins of several others, their broken uprights jutting out between the rusting girders and twisted stanchions like pointing fingers.

However, as I continued to learn about the village of Sapphire, a once holiday resort gasping its last breath due to fracking, something occurred to me.  Jenna’s world made no sense at all.  Because I’m slow on the uptake, I only became aware of the weird inconsistencies when Jenna made a passing remark about how there was no longer any salmon left in England, that all the fish they had left to eat were a “few hardy carp.”  This jarred with me because previous to this reference there was no indication that the people of Sapphire were struggling from a scarcity of food.  And while I admit that this apparent hole could be explained away by saying that their meals were manufactured using the same genetic technology that had developed the smart dogs, I started to pay attention to the world building.  I noticed that there were these references to a recent war, possibly with Argentina, with no explanation of why the war was fought or who had won.  And there was a weird mix of technology.  No-one seemed to use mobile phone or tablets and yet genetically smart dogs telepathically linked to their jockeys was a normal aspect of the society.  Even the name of the village, Sapphire, rang a false note.  It reminded me of the sort of fake American towns the Russians built during the Cold War to train their spies.

In spite of my reservations, I didn’t stop reading because the prose and the plot were so compelling.  Jenna’s story of her unstable brother Del, his love for training smart dogs and how his getting involved with the wrong sort of people led to (a) the kidnapping of his daughter and (b) her survival resting on the outcome of a dog race, builds in momentum until the tension becomes unbearable.  Seriously.  It’s genuine white knuckle stuff.

And then “Jenna” ends and I start reading “Christy”, which is most definitely set in our world – possibly in the 80s – and I quickly realised that Christy’s life mirrors that of Jenna’s in that they both have a brother that they don’t entirely trust.  It becomes clear that Christy has used aspects of her real life to create Jenna’s world.  Later were informed by Alex, in the third novella, that Christy has written a number of short stories set in that strange, twisted version of the United Kingdom where wars are fought with Argentina and the technology is a mix of the mundane and the bleeding edge.

It’s all very meta, and if I was looking at the book through a more academic lens, I might view The Race as a commentary on the self imposed ghettoisation of literary and genre fiction.  As an examination of that divide, Allan’s novel splits the genre and literary sections apart and then has them fold into each other through the course of the narrative.  And while it’s extremely clever, and demonstrates an author comfortable with her genre and literary ancestry, for me it wasn’t the most striking aspect of the novel.

Rather, I was drawn to how The Race explored to the act of creativity as therapy and catharsis.  Christy has always believed that her brother killed his girlfriend Linda.  And yet during a meeting with Alex, also a once boyfriend of Linda, Christy is informed that Linda is very much alive.  Given that she was living with the guilt of not reporting her brother for the crime she’d thought he’d committed the news that Linda survived the relationship unsurprisingly affects Christy deeply.

Alex had the sense that she was still trying to get to grips with things, to sort out the facts as she now understood them from the fictions that had tormented her for so long.

That reference to “fictions” has more than one meaning in the context of the novel.  For Christy, the abuse at the hands of her brother has not only haunted her nightmares but also informed her fiction.  If the writing of “Jenna” is Christy’s attempt to exorcise those demons at the hands of her brother, “Maree” is a genuine moment of catharsis.  The child who was kidnapped in “Jenna” has now grown up and is travelling on a steamer to an island where gifted young adults are sent.  Again, the story retains the quirky world building of “Jenna” – there’s mention  of war, but this time it’s between the Thalians and Crimond – and there’s the same strange mix of technology.  Although the novella has nowhere near the momentum or intensity as “Jenna” (aside from one thrilling set piece involving killer whales) this is very much a story about a young woman coming to terms with who she is.  For Christy – never mentioned, never hinted at, but a presence nonetheless – there is also the need to absorb what she now knows, the fact that Linda is alive and that she no longer needs to burden herself with the crushing guilt of not speaking up.  And while the scars of abuse are still present, at least, like Maree, who is asked to make a critical choice at the end of the novella, there’s a sense in which Christy is free to forge her own destiny.

Smart, emotionally engaging and beautifully written, The Race is an astonishing novel by one of the best writers in the genre field at the moment.

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