Allan’s debut – The Race – is a brave novel, hard to categorise and in some ways hard to describe. It is, essentially, four short stories from four different characters’ perspectives. It begins in a fairly standard fashion; a science fiction tale from the point of view of Jenna.
Kent, and by extrapolation, England, has been ravaged. Fracking has caused an environmental collapse. Life has reverted back to almost 1970s style existence (shillings are the currency, trams are the main transport), except that the major past-time is smartdog racing; a futuristic version of greyhound racing, where the dogs are connected to human runners. Jenna makes gloves for the runners. The story takes place in Sapphire, on the edge of the future Romney Marshes. Not a lot happens at the outset. Jenna describes her life and her narrow world view. Her brother, who is dodgy, runs a race track. His daughter gets kidnapped and he must win the big race to find the money to pay the kidnappers.
Next up is Christy. Her story is much more contemporary. In fact, it appears she lives in our world. It perturbed me a little early on as her voice and her story seemed a lot like Jenna’s. Christy’s brother is Derek, Jenna’s is Del. They are both wrong’uns. Again, not a lot of plot to talk about, as Christy describes her relationships with the people who come into her life as she heads off to university. One of Derek’s girlfriends is called Lin. She goes missing…Alex is Lin’s ex-boyfriend and is the narrator of the third, and shortest story. He visits Christy in Hastings, where they must confront their pasts. He also ties up a loose end of Christy’s tale.
Back in the future, the final story features the orphan Maree, an empath on a strange journey to a new home across the Atlantic. Some of the places seem to be those of our world, and some seem to be the world of Jenna – smartdogs are a feature too. There’s a lot of mythology in this story, especially about gigantic whales that cause consternation to the travellers. Relationships are the order of the day in this segment, and Maree has plenty of them to negotiate. One of the passengers on her ship discloses that he is an investigator hired to find her. Maree is the kidnapped niece of Jenna. It is revealed that she is to work on a project which is attempting to translating some potential alien languages. There is an appendix too, which is a third person story of Maree, several years later. More about how the stories throughout the novel are interwoven is revealed. I especially enjoyed the link to the mirror scene in an earlier section of the book.
Allan’s voice is strong. Her prose is very readable and her characters very engaging. The style of the first two (Jenna and Christy) is deliberately similar, and once you work it out, is satisfying. Despite the individual sections not having a whole lot of story, the completed work exposes the bigger picture nicely. Not everything works perfectly – such as the narrow focus of the world building in the science fiction tales, and the half made-up, half relatable future. Although I suppose as they are first person tales, the narrow focus is understandable.
The main focus of The Race is not science fiction, or even plot. It is relationships. Especially between brother and sister, but also, and unusually in science fiction, between boyfriends and girlfriends (and same sex couples) in the early stages or short-term partnerships. Not much happy ever after or soul-mates to be found here. People come and go in our lives and Allan describes this with aplomb. I could have done with more plot, personally. I would have liked an explanation of why the gloves where so important. I would have liked more thematic completion, especially around the title – although I guess it might be the human race as opposed to the smartdog race. Alex seems to exist only to solve Christy’s suspicions surrounding the missing Lin.
Allan’s deft touch is nice – when the hints she drops about Christy’s voice is made clear, it is almost casual, as if unimportant. There is an undercurrent about Allan’s view of language and what books generally and stories specifically mean to her, culminating in the terrific passage which includes the memorable line: “what the hell is a fucking squirrel”. There are hints of Allan’s feelings on war, and the science fiction has a nostalgic quality. And so there is a lot going on in The Race, lack of plot notwithstanding, and most of it hugely enjoyable. And you can thank Allan’s brilliant prose style and very likeable characters.
Originally published here: http://nudge-book.com/blog/2016/09/the-race-by-nina-allan/