Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of The Race by Nina Allan

Nina Allan has, for the past dozen years, quietly but steadily put together a worthwhile number of short stories residing in the wonderfully fuzzy area between genre and literary fiction.  With the recent success of her elegantly futuristic myth “Spin” in 2013, it seemed only natural that a novel would be forthcoming, and in 2014 the promise manifested itself in The Race (NewCon Press).  Her roots of short fiction not far behind, the novel is four pieces of tangential fiction linked obtusely.  Fractured narrative only begins to describe it; one must also add dimension.  Moving between the realms of fiction, veiled autobiography, and embedded fiction, the reader knows with certainty where they stand, but only in the story at hand.  Familiar objects and ideas appear and reappear throughout the novel, but the light shining on them is always different.  But for as elusive as the novel sometimes may be, when the fa├žade washes away, what remains possesses the breath of existence of any person riding the changing currents of life and memory. 

Hovering somewhere near the figurative center of The Race is a teenager named Christy.  Her mother one day walking out the door and literally never looking back, she is left with a hard working but emotionally distant father and an older brother whose virulent personality is bearable on a day to day basis but can give way to acts of extreme violence if provoked.  Having a gift with words, she gets a few stories published, but the weight of her family life and uncertainty regarding friendship and partners prevent any major breakout or desire.  Losing her virginity, the transition to university life, relationships with her brother’s girlfriends—Christy moves through the normal events of life with the requisite drama of becoming an adult.  Trying to make sense of it all, it’s the people around her and the stories she writes—stories of troubled families, smartdog racing, and a land damaged by poor environmental practice—that layer the proceedings, giving them the full complexity of reality.

Christy not so distant from the stories she writes (appropriately so), the presentation begs the reader to impress their assumptions of Allan onto the novel.  The Race working at different levels, one can almost feel the real world transitioning into the fictional, and then the fictional yet, from page to page.  But how it ultimately all parses out, only Allan knows.  The novel an exploration of these levels, the organic feel and movement of the characters, however, prevent it from becoming a formal post-modern exposition on the transience of reality.  Christy, her characters in her stories, her friends, and the events, memories, concerns, and day to day life which bind them all together feel more at home in quotidian life than on a grandiose literary canvas.

It thus may be tempting to compare The Race to the works of Keith Roberts—a British writer known for his ability to present different perspectives in short fiction that coalesce into a common premise upon the conclusion of the work.  But to do so would be to overlook important facets of The Race.  This is not to say Roberts’ novels lack sophistication, rather that most often the complexity of his stories lies in the characters themselves, not in the transition of story to story.  With The Race, each sub-story requires the reader to shift gears.  Scattered elements ring common throughout the book, tantalizingly close to coherence, but the last orange square dances on the other side of the Rubik’s cube, seemingly unwilling to come round and form an obvious whole.  The gloves, the Argentinian vocalist, the smartdogs, the disappearances, the female viewpoint—all flitter in and out of view.  But upon the conclusion one still wonders about the relationship between the smartdog and their human runner, the meaning of the whales, where Alex was able to take himself, and ultimately where in the milieu lies firm footing.

Attempting to hash out the substance of The Race, I was thus repeatedly in retreat mode, heading back to the only element truly in common to all four stories: the title.  Allan too savvy to produce an ostentatious metaphor for something as obvious as Social Darwinism, for example, it was necessary to look deeper to find the novel’s vertebrae, and it was only upon reading the final page that an overriding idea stood out in my mind.  I remain unconfident of the reading, but will press on. 

Less about competition and more about the contestants, time, and moment to moment existence within any proverbial race, Allan seems (emphasis on the ambiguous side of ‘seems’) to have struck upon a concept for the transitory progression of everyday life and place. Living locale, friends, relationships, perceived reality, even memory itself is in flux when taken into account from one perspective in time to another.  Life continually evolving subtly underfoot, we come and go.  You live in this city, now that town.  I used to work downtown, now I’m working out of a friend’s house.  You’ve been going out every Friday with that group of friends, but over time, without noticing, one or two have slipped away and been replaced.  And soon enough it is you yourself sitting with another group of friends.  Did dad always look so old?  Sally liked knitting last year, but now she’s into decoupage.  I think I will, too.  I remember Joe, but now that I meet him again, he’s nothing like what I remember.  What happened to him?  Is it him?  Me?  The place?  Accordingly, numerous are the transitions and changes in The Race.  More than just boyfriends lost or wives divorced, people, family, and friends come and go, new living places are found and lost, and past, present, and future continually take on different hues in memory.  Some things stick around and run alongside for a time; others break away, slipping behind or shifting ahead—some seen again, some not. 

But the beauty of it all is that Allan never asks these questions or makes these statements directly.  A real craftswoman, The Race is further proof she is one of the best writing today.  The subtle differences that make the first story more fictional than the second are superb, for example.  That extra dramatic edge of genre fiction which rarely manifests itself in real life (assassinations, machine/human/dog interface, kidnapping, etc.) appears in the first, providing juxtaposition to the mimetically rendered life of Christy in the second.  And this skilled play of tone and effect continues throughout the book.  Regarding storytelling, I initially identified the handling of the characters’ life transitions as a sore spot of the novel.  But I have come round to realize it as a fully complementary technique.  The changes in the characters’ lives sometimes occurring in relative droves over a short number of pages, it can be difficult to stop and catch a breath.  The little details of ‘good writing’ that flesh out a scene seem missing.  Christy’s story, for example, can feel choppy with the lack of plot plateaus following a major event in her life.  But this is part of the design.  Time moving inexorably onward, the characters’ must deal with life forever in the present, the proverbial race not stopping for anyone. After all, we live in the moment, but are often bound up in others, control slipping in and out of grasp.

In the end, The Race is a multi-faceted novel that stands quietly, half-transparent in the light of comprehension.  Lives that intertwine with fictional lives that slip in and out of other lives—all are bonded together by the soft, pliable glue of moments continually re-contextualized by past, present, and future.  Though superficially science fiction (e.g.. the smartdogs and far-away lands of Thalia), the reality of the novel is something more liminal, more exploratory, more in dialogue with the ideas of fiction, reality, writing, and their intersection in the mind and memory.   Four personal stories ostensibly anchor the text, but much more is about reaching out to find the aspects of relationships, family, and home that make life intangibly what it is.  Nothing spoon-fed, Dan Hartland at Strange Horizons writes The Race guards its secrets,” and I have to agree.  What a not is secret, however, is the arrival of a highly talented speculative fiction writer in novel land.  Looking forward to more longer works from Allan.


  1. "all are bonded together by the soft, pliable glue of moments continually re-contextualized by past, present, and future" I've been struggling to find a way to describe this novel and there it is. Wonderful review!

    I was also quite taken by The Race and I am still mulling over the meaning of that title. The title transcends itself from tale to tale: the dog race, the race of empaths, the race to run away from trauma, the race to overcome trauma, the race to free oneself from oppression... none of it very race-like at all. The Race is so intangible, yet it feels so intimate. Not a book you can just shake off after the last page.

    1. Agreed, agreed, agreed - none of it very race like at all. For a much better review than mine, see Dan Hartland's at Strange Horizons: