Filler content with smartdog racing

A review that originally appeared in Interzone #254 and which I’m reprising here now because Titan are bringing out a paperback edition of the book in early July:-

Nina Allan
NewCon Press pb, 251pp, £12.99

Peter Tennant

Nina Allan’s latest work is a book that eludes easy categorisation. For a start though it’s being pitched as a science fiction novel, I’m not sure that strictly speaking either tag applies. A novel yes, but also four self-contained sections that form a greater whole. Science fiction yes, but a story in which the genre elements are both central and subordinate to a mainstream narrative. As with Allan’s previous work, the brilliant Stardust, what we have here is fiction as a series of matryoshka dolls, each new part forcing the reader to re-evaluate and interpret anew what has gone before.

Each section takes its title from the name of the viewpoint character. Opening section ‘Jenna’ is set in a borderline dystopian future Britain, with the landscape soured by fracking and the populace looking back at a disastrous war that cost the lives of millions. The town of Sapphire survives on smartdog racing, an illegal activity to which the powers that be turn a blind eye, with technology used to establish a mental/empathic link between the dogs and their handlers. Jenna makes luxury gloves for the handlers, while her brother Del is an owner, with a secondary career on the black market. Central to the plot is the abduction of his young daughter Luz Maree, who everyone calls Lumey and who may have a natural ability to “converse” with the dogs. Del hopes to raise the necessary ransom money through a smartdog race. Allan painstakingly creates this detailed world and then in ‘Christy’ reveals that it is in fact a fiction, a story by Christy Peller, and what follows involves a fascinating examination of the relationship between reality and fiction. Christy too has a brother Derek (Del), one even more unsavoury than his fictional counterpart, an abuser of women whose girlfriends have a habit of disappearing when they don’t toe his line. There are other correspondences – between Hastings and fictional Sapphire, abducted Lumey and missing Linda, the runaway mothers of Jenna/Del and Christy/Derek.

The third part is set twenty years later and focused on a meeting between Linda’s former boyfriend ‘Alex’ and Christy, who is seeking to lay the ghosts of her past, and once again what we are told forces us to reconsider what we had believed to that point, though not without an element of ambiguity. Finally we have ‘Maree’ in which we learn what happened to Lumey, how she was kept in a halfway house of sorts for many years, believing that her parents had died in a tragic accident and preparing to use her ability to communicate with smartdogs. The main part of this segment involves a steamer crossing of the Atlantic, with Lumey/Maree being sent to a research base where her talent will be further developed, but apart from the term Atlantic all of the place names used appear to be fictional, distancing this segment from both our world and that of the story in the first section, though Allan throws us a curve ball near the end by referencing Hastings, Christy and Derek, as if the mask of fiction is slipping, a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain. Overall it feels like Christy revisiting old material, and providing the happy ending she couldn’t write before. There are further correspondences to be drawn, with Alex mentioning a woman whose face was shot away and a pilot with a scarred visage appearing in the fourth part, Christy’s brother Derek having gone off to Australia to be with their mother and aboard the steamer a mother travelling to be reunited with her estranged son, and the Hotel Charlotte, an abandoned building Christy visited in the second section resurrected as a place of sanctuary for Maree in the fourth part.

One of Allan’s great strengths as a writer is her ability to draw convincing, fully rounded characters. She tells us far more about the lives of these people than my brief description can convey, and with the feeling that she knows even more than she chooses to reveal. In a sense everything that takes place could be seen as an exploration of Christy’s character, the writer using fiction to work through her own issues – her emotional and aesthetic needs, the wish to have a brother who is not a monster and a family unit that supports and encourages her. And, distancing ourselves yet one step further from the narrative, Christy is a fictional creation of the writer Nina Allan (in parenthesis, note the second syllable similarity between the writer’s name and that of the character Jenna Hoolan, which may or may not be significant), who is exploring her own concerns through the medium of interlocking stories. Empathy seems to be central – that between the smartdogs and their handlers mirrored in the relationship between author and characters, with fiction as a way to make sense of our reality, and possibly reinvent it in ways that are more pleasing to us. Conversely, a lack of empathy seems to be at the heart of most of the book’s problems, as with the racism that Alex suffered in his youth and the misogyny that is Derek’s defining characteristic, and the disdain for humans that is felt by the whales that make Atlantic crossings such an ordeal in Maree’s section. And finally, there is the possibility that Maree and others are being trained to communicate with aliens, that the establishment of a way to divorce meaning from language is the goal.

This is the kind of book that requires several readings and copious note taking to do it justice in a review, but time denies me such strategies. I don’t know what it’s all about, can only hazard guesses. But I do know that Nina Allan has produced one of the finest books I’ve read this year, a novel that is beautifully written, conceptually daring, informed by compassion and a luminous intelligence. Please read it.

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