If I were to start this article by stating that The Race is the best debut of the year to date, I’d be telling the truth, to be sure, but I’d be lying to you, too—and that’s as apt a tack as any I could take to introduce a review of a book as deceptive and self-reflexive as said.
You see, it might be that I was more moved by Nina Allan’s first novel than by any other released in recent months—emotionally and, yes, intellectually—but The Race was not released in recent months, not really: NewCon Press published an earlier edition in 2014, which, even absent the substantial and supremely satisfying expansion Allan has added for Titan Books’ new and improved take two, went on to be nominated for the BSFA’s Best Novel Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Prize and the Kitschies’ Red Tentacle. And although The Race is indeed Allan’s first novel proper, it is, in a sense, a cycle of stories that share subjects and settings, not unlike several of the aforementioned author’s earlier efforts, such as Stardust and The Silver Wind.
So it’s not really a debut and it wasn’t really released this year, which leaves just one of my first line’s “facts” unfudged. Happily, The Race actually is amazing, and if you haven’t read it already, don’t let this second chance pass you by.
The Race is a book about longing, and belonging. It’s a book about identity—how it’s formed for us, and how we go on to fit it to ourselves or else ourselves to it. It’s a book that teaches us the value of family; the damage those nearest and dearest to us can do, and the good things, too. It’s a book that instructs us to take the measure of our previous experiences before moving fully into the future.
It’s a book, for the first hundred pages and change, about Jenna Hoolman, who lives in a former gas town with what’s left of her family; with her brother Del and his oddball daughter Lumey. Sapphire’s glory days are long gone, alas. “It’s what you might call an open secret that the entire economy of Sapphire as it is now is funded upon smartdog racing. Officially the sport is still illegal, but that’s never stopped it from being huge.”
Smartdog racing is the practice of gambling on greyhounds that have been genetically engineered to have an lifelong link with their runners, which is what the men and women who train and care for these incredibly clever creatures are called. Some people believe they’re mind readers, but not Jen’s boyfriend Em:
“I think true telepathy—the kind you see in films—is probably a myth. But something approaching it, definitely. A kind of empathic sixth sense. The work that’s been done with the smartdogs is just the start. All runners are natural empaths to an extent, we’ve known that for a long time. The implant is just a facilitator for their inborn talent. Children like Lumey though—children who don’t need an implant at all to communicate—they’re the next stage. A new race, almost. And yes […] that would make her very valuable indeed.”
Valuable enough to kidnap and hold to ransom, to truly devastating effect, not least because the only way Del knows how to raise the money to buy Lumey back from her captors is to wager a sizable sum on his smartdog, Limlasker, winning the Delawarr Triple. “What it came down to was this: Del was proposing to bet his daughter’s life on a sodding dog race.” The race Allan’s title refers to, right?
Well, you know… yes and no. Because there’s a race in the second section of the text, too, in which we’re introduced to Christy, a writer who seems to have created Sapphire and its inhabitants whole cloth. Her sad story is of a family that falls apart after the loss of a loved one. “Nobody was to blame and yet we all were. Instead of reaching out to one another we had dived inward, into worlds that lay in close orbit but never touched.”
Christy’s share of The Race is only speculative insofar as she writes slightly science-fictional stories set in Sapphire. That said, there is much magic in her narrative, and some tremendously rewarding resonance, culminating in the figurative collision of Christy’s world with Jen’s when the former rushes to find a missing person that she suspects her brother—a loose cannon reminiscent of Del from the latter’s narrative—might have hurt, like he hurt her, or worse.
The third and shortest component of the whole addresses race in the ethnic sense. Herein we have Alex, a bit-part player in the second section who, decades later, in the wake of a separation, returns “to the harbour of his home port, a narrow, mean-minded place, rife with old rivalries and uneasy memories” at the invitation of an certain writer.
Brief as it may be, Alex’s meeting with Christy brings a kind of closure to both characters’ arcs, and that closure, that sense of putting the past in its place, of learning from rather than belabouring one’s mistakes, is realised in The Race‘s fourth (if no longer final) fragment, which returns readers to the world of Jen and Del and Lumey, albeit through the eyes of another character: an orphaned empath called Maree. But Maree is not who she appears to be…
That’s The Race all over, if I’m honest. It’s a science fiction novel, but it’s not. It both is and is not episodic. It’s completely real and yet utterly unreal. Familiar at the same time as strange. It isn’t ever what you think it is, except when it is. “There was something about each of the stories that seemed to place [them] beyond the reach of ordinary time,” something about each of the settings that makes them more alive than landscapes on a canvas, something about each of the characters that elevates them beyond a load of letters arranged on a page. It’s hard to put your finger on just what that something is, but perhaps that’s the power of language in the hands of a master like Allan:
Most people tended to think of languages as if they were analogues of each other, lists of words and phrases and grammatical caveats that could be translated like for like, one for another. Yet a language was so much more than simply words for things. Language was like the soft clay used by naturalists to record the tracks left by elusive creatures in out-of-the-way places. It captured everything, reflected everything.
Like Cloud Atlas recombined with Jo Walton’s wonderful Among Others, The Race is interested, above all other things, “in how the lives of ordinary people can become unfastened from reality.” As such, it steps back and steps back and steps back, Inception-esque, undoing assumptions and exceeding expectations, until the only way further backward is forward. So forth it goes.
For all that, though, it’s a wonderfully understated work of words, worthy of all the awards NewCon Press’ earlier edition was nominated for. But never mind the date of its publication, nor whether or not it’s actually Nina Allan’s first novel: in and of itself, The Race is absolutely remarkable.
The Race is available now from Titan Books.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.