18 July 2016

The Race by Nina Allan

Image from http://titanbooks.com
The Race
Nina Allan
Titan Books, 19 July 2016
PB, 444pp
Source: Advance copy kindly sent to me by the publisher.

Oh, but this book is good. How to review it though? I'm not sure I really know where to begin. I do know that saying too much about the structure would spoil things - there are things here that the reader needs to work out for herself. I also know that this is a book that is hard to pin down, and I may have drawn the wrong conclusions on some of it. For both these reasons I will have to be a bit vague in what follows, and I apologise in advance for that.

So, In The Race there are essentially five stories. In the first, we learn about Jenna, growing up in a crummy town called Sapphire. Sapphire is close to the Romney Marshes, long polluted by fracking, only it is not in England: Sapphire is in a place called Crimond. The town's tenuous prosperity is based on racing smartdogs - greyhounds genetically modified to communicate with their human "runners". Jenna's brother Del is involved in managing the dogs.

In what is clearly an alternate reality, Allan develops a narrative that is gripping and sulpherous, a kind of warped Brighton Rock. She dwells on the tawdry glamour of the dog track, the business of making hand sewn "gants" for the runners (this is Jenna's trade), drug dealing, kidnapping and the grim fate of superannuated dogs. At the same time we also learn the background of this world, the migrant race of "Hools' that both Jenna and Del come from and its language.

The following two stories step back from fantasy and focus on, respectively, Christy and Alex. Christy, first, grows up in Hastings. Like Jenna she has a missing mother and a dominant, unpredictable brother - though Derek is a terror compared to Del: again I thought of Pinky in Brighton Rock: "So long as Dad was in the house, I felt safe, only never quite" writes Christy. And indeed, Derek does terrible things, one related so matter of factly that it might break your heart. Much of this story is occupied with Christy's fears about just what he may have done, or be about to.

Alex is mentioned in that second story but comes into his own more in the third, named for him. His childhood - again, in Hastings - is marked by bullying and racism: "No-one in college called him n***** but there were still dozens of ways he felt he stood out, not because of the colour of his skin but because of the insults he'd been subjected to because of it." With both Alex's and Christy's stories Allan skewers, I think, the sense of being marginalised, made a victim, part of somebody else's story rather than writing one's own. And also - and how prescient is this? - the desperately think ice on which decent behaviour skates: "...he knew also that things could change around you in an instant, and that when they did it was always those who were different that were made to suffer."

Alex and, especially, Christy in these stories have a connection to Sapphire and Jenna's world. In some ways their situations and lives echo each other, despite Sapphire being part of a fantasy world (towards the end of her story Jenna travels to a London which is perfectly ordinary in some ways but with craters, caused by explosions in "the war" - a war also mentioned when veterans weep on hearing it mentioned). For the reasons given above, I won't say just what the connection is: as Allan explores it, more and more echoes arise between the two worlds until, by the end, I honestly wasn't sure which themes originated with who.

The final two stories ("Maree" and "Brock Island") essentially fit together as two episodes, decades apart, in the life of a woman, Maree. She clearly lives in Jenna's world, and we learn more about that war, which seems to have been against a South American country, Thalia: though the details are sparse and we seem to be at peace again, the experience weighs heavy on everyone. Terrible details are given almost casually: smartdogs were created to carry weapons through enemy lines - including nuclear weapons. Maree, who has been trained from an early age to use her rare talents in the service of a mysterious "programme", is on a voyage to Thalia - could it be that "Crimond" lost the war against Thalia? It hardly matters. Allan scatters enough uncertainty about the locations and names of her fictional countries to make it pointless to try and work out exactly what happened - as well as thinly disguised versions of France and Spain we also have England and Scotland mentioned here alongside "Crimond". And whales - great, island sized Atlantic whales, which are a danger to shipping rather than a hunted species. In these stories, one moment you think you understand the fictional world - say where the Internet is mentioned, it must be close to ours? - then the next we have steamships and tribes following the "old orthodoxy" which means human sacrifice to the whales.

And through it all, Maree on her voyage. If "Jenna" played on Graham Greene, "Maree" feels like a story by Conrad or Stephenson: an ill assorted collection of Western passengers on their by slow boat to the tropics, with rivalries, friendships and slightly bored, saloon-bound politics that you get - or got - in such cases.

The final story, while still rooted in Maree's life, also becomes more philosophical. "Words are what humans are, even more than flesh" she muses as she reviews her life - and as we learn what she has really been doing and what depends on it. At the same time, the structure I thought I'd worked out that tied all the stories together seemed I real doubt: as I read the last page I simply didn't know whether or not I'd been wrong all along - or whether it even mattered.

This book is simply breathtaking. Not only does Allan have deep it insight into her characters and their lives, she writes beautiful prose, and leaves the reader needing to think very deeply and very hard about her story.

Really, really good, certainly the best book I've read this year so far. Just superb.

For more information on the book see here. To buy it, try  your local bookshop (local bookshops are the best bookshops!) or here, here or here.

(Nina Allan also has a story in Drowned Worlds which I reviewed here).

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