The RaceThe Race
Nina Allen
Titan Books
Release Date:  July 19, 2016
ISBN 978-1-785650-36-9

Originally published in 2014 by NewCon Press and rereleased in 2016 by Titan Books, Nina Allen’s novel The Race is hard to describe – but wonderful to read.

On the surface, the five sections of the book are linked – sometimes directly, sometimes tangentially – by the underground sport of smartdog racing, wherein genetically enhanced dogs, linked to their human “runners” by implants, race over a steeplechase-like track for fun and profit.  Also central to the various plots – again, sometimes directly and sometimes tangentially – is the kidnapping of the young daughter of a violent, unstable smartdog owner.

We start out in the downtrodden town of Sapphire, in an England fraught with ecological stress brought on by fracking and other questionable corporate practices.  It’s not clear if this is England of the near future, or some alternate take on the area; there are enough details to warrant evidence in either direction, which is part of the allure of this book.

Were it not for smartdog racing, Sapphire would be totally bust. The dogs were originally developed in a research facility there with the intention of making them into weapons (strap a bomb to a dog’s back and send it in to a war zone, let it wreck havoc), but public outcry against animal cruelty and the suspect ethics involved in their genetic alterations ultimately caused the facility to shut down – and allowed the shadowy industry of using the dogs for sport to fill the vacuum left behind.

This first section of the novel belongs to Jenna, a young woman who has grown up in Sapphire.  Jenna’s life has not been easy: her mother left when she was 15, her father, who runs a small waste reclaiming business, is riddled with cancer.  Her older brother, Del, is an angry, violent boy; Jenna believes that were it not for the smartdogs, Del would have been in jail, or worse, a long time ago.  As it were, Del lives for his smartdog, Limlasker.

It is the kidnapping of Del’s young daughter, Lumey, that sets the drama of the book in motion, but it is in the everyday actions of Jenna – her thoughts, her observations, her motivations; what she knows and doesn’t know, what she asks and what she leaves alone – that truly draws the reader in.  The narrow world around her, how the importance of the dogs permeates that world, the unexpected beauty that can be glimpsed between the slats of a broken view, the acceptance of life as it is – all these things are captivating.

Jenna’s story establishes a groundwork for the other sections, but not in a linear way.  Each following section offers a different perspective from a different starting point along (or around) the inter-related tale.  Christy’s progress towards independence is impeded by an explosive family.  Alex is forced to re-examine his past when a writer approaches him for information about a shared acquaintance.  And Maree embarks on a transatlantic journey that is both dangerous and alarmingly illuminating.  The final section is an “appendix” that appears to pull all the stories together years later.  Or does it?

As we move from section to section in the novel, it becomes increasingly obvious that we are on precarious footing if we try to establish a sense of fact versus fiction that remains impermeable throughout the entire novel.  Activity that is vitally important in one section is ignored in another, while fainter aspects echo or are even pulled to the forefront.  However, it is telling that a recurring image in the stories is one of seeing a reflection of oneself but having a sense of viewing a separate reality.  In one of the stories, Christy catches her reflection in a mirror in an abandoned house and reaches out to touch it believing that in the touching, she and the girl on the other side could swap places, something she finds “scary but (…) also exciting.”  They are interrupted, though, and the moment passes.

Or does it?  The diaphanous nature of the connective threads winding through the stories never answers the question of how much is real and how much is imagined in the novel as a whole.  And yet, each section is so compelling, that the answer to that question is not so much a driving force behind the narrative, as it is a glimpse of something more.  And in the end, it’s strangely, wonderfully satisfying.

The Race is author Nina Allen’s debut novel (she’s written numerous short stories and short story collections), and her second full novel, The Rift, is due out in the summer of 2017.  Given the strength of her work in The Race, I’m already anticipating the release of this next novel.

~ Sharon Browning

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