THE FIRST TIME I read The Race, I remember being strangely moved, but uncertain — the way you feel when you’ve experienced something brilliant, but uncategorizable. What exactly had I just read? In the vein of writers such as David Mitchell, Emily St. John Mandel, and Kazuo Ishiguro, The Race seemed part science fiction, part thriller, and part ghost story, and yet the novel was wholly itself, a profound meditation on the nature of fragmentation and loss — or what Nina Allan calls, “the secret language of memory.”

At its heart, The Race is a story of split identities. Lives diverted by violence or change are sometimes restored and sometimes left achingly incomplete. The novel begins in Sapphire, a small coastal town in England left isolated by the ecological devastation caused by a failed fracking industry. The first section focuses on Jenna Hoolman and the uneasy relationship she shares with her brother, Del. Both Jenna and Del make their living through smartdog racing, a potentially lucrative, but highly dangerous sport. When Del’s four-year-old daughter Lux Maree — a child with talents of her own — is kidnapped, both Del and Jenna are irrevocably shattered. To get her back, Del risks everything on the race of his life, running his favorite smartdog, the grizzled Limlasker, in the brutal Delawarr Triple.

The narrative then shifts to Christy Peller, a young girl from Hastings who finds a way to escape the slow disintegration of her family by writing about the imaginary town of Sapphire. Like Jenna, Christy recognizes in her older brother Derek a potential for violence that others seem unwilling to acknowledge, but only after Derek’s girlfriend Linda disappears does she begin to suspect how deep his psychopathy might run. Years later, Christy reaches out to Alex Adeyemi, the man whom Linda had been seeing while she and Derek were together. The past has a brutal hold on both of them, and only through each other are they able to find a way to let go and move on with their lives.

The final two sections explore the fate of Del’s daughter Maree, older now and oblivious to her history. Raised within a secret government program designed to research the bond between humans and smartdogs, she receives an offer of freedom: a chance to return to Sapphire, the home she cannot remember. But the choice isn’t as easy as it seems: Is she still the same person she was all those years ago? What bond does she share with her family? The final section moves forward yet again, presented as a sort of epilogue within the framework of one of Christy Peller’s short stories. In it, years after her fateful Atlantic crossing, Maree comes to terms with the choices she has made.

What impressed me most about Allan’s novel is how the layers upon layers of history are intuitively pressed against one another. It operates by night-time logic, a term coined by the short story writer Kelly Link, which refers to the kind of fiction guided by principles that can only be grasped intuitively, or in other words, stories that feel right even if they don’t make outward sense. In The Race, individual histories are reassembled, reiterated, and recontextualized as the borders between fact and fiction dissolve. Yet, there is a logic to the story, a chain of associations that allows us to recognize in Derek the shadow of the ambitious smartdog racer Del, and in Jenna Hoolman a double for Christy Peller.

Identity play is a persistent theme in The Race. When Del suggests that the sun will eventually engulf the Earth, Jenna eloquently reflects on the difference between the past and the future:

I know he’s right in what he says, but I like to hope it won’t be the end, that creatures who were smart enough to put a man on the moon will one day be smart enough to invent a way of getting us out of here before it’s too late.

To find a new home for us to fly to, where we can start again.

I have to believe that, even though I’ll be millions of years dead by then, and so will Del and so will Claudia. Lumey will be dead too, wherever she is. I have to believe that it matters, or what’s the point? If you have nothing to believe in, you stop being yourself, and when that happens you might as well be dead anyway.

Del had no time for fancies like that, and as for the secret language of memory, I don’t think Del bought a single race track souvenir in the whole of his life.

If this novel has a binding thread, then it is a secret language of memory. While every individual is haunted by his or her own actions, they seem to be guided by a kind of racial memory, a force that creates connections across worlds.

It is in the final section of The Race where this connective thread becomes most visible. Here, Maree investigates the disappearance of Laura Christy, a painter once married to her host, Duncan Taborow. The story of the vanished artist resonates for Maree, who herself was kidnapped when she was a child, and yet for Maree we learn that there has been no significant rupture that she can remember. Her disappearance was a crisis for those left behind, while she herself simply acclimatized and adapted. But as Maree begins to explore Laura’s paintings, we get distorted hints of how the sections of the narrative begin to fit together:

Laura believed she had a twin. Or not a twin, exactly, but a woman who was identical to her in every way, except she lived inside a parallel universe. Laura claimed to have seen this parallel universe, to have experienced it first-hand. She even painted pictures of it. She talked about our own world being in danger from invaders, all kinds of odd things.

Laura’s belief parallels Maree’s sense of her her own life: “I feel confused,” she thinks as she wanders the harbor, trying to come to terms with her personal history, “as if another, alternate version of my life is still going on somewhere. Perhaps that is the real life after all, and this is the illusion.” Here, she echoes the old family legend that the Hools “had believed there were conduits, secret gateways to another world, a world that might one day begin to seep through, enveloping our own world in chaos or destruction or nirvana as the legend demanded.” And yet there is no explicit resolution to the dilemma. If there are other worlds, then they remain inaccessible. Glimpsed, perhaps, but never fully explored. As the novel progresses, the reader is left with the overwhelming sense that such exploration would be fruitless and no answer would be wholly satisfactory: no life is complete unto itself, no life exists as an island.

Another lens for this novel is Sigmund Freud’s identification of the uncanny as a category that belongs to “the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread […] that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” Just as The Race could be seen as a splendid piece of science fiction, it might also be regarded as a ghost story, crossing over into the weird territory of writers such as M. John Harrison and Robert Aickman. Allan’s narrative makes the familiar unsettling, but at the same time, it shows how prosaic, how livable a horrible situation can become over time. The characters within this novel are haunted by the lives they never had a chance to live, by the decisions they have made for themselves and the decisions that were taken away from them; they are haunted by their pain, by their inability to move on, and simultaneously by the inexorable movement of time which turns present trauma into lived history.

The publication history of The Race has weird affinities with the novel itself. It is a tale of alternate universes and reimaginings, the collisions of chance and good fortune. By 2014, Nina Allan had already become well known in certain circles of British and European publishing for a string of critically acclaimed short story collections and novellas: A Thread of Truth and The Silver Wind (Eibonvale Press), Microcosmos (NewCon Press), Spin (TTA Press), and the story cycle Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories (PS Publishing). The Race was set to follow the trend. It was originally published in 2014 by NewCon Press, an independent publisher based in the east of England. But the novel achieved a national audience when it was recognized as a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Kitschies Red Tentacle Award, and the Best Novel Award from the British Science Fiction Association. In a move that paralleled John Murray’s successful reissue of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, The Race was acquired by Titan Books and expanded with an additional final section for its 2016 rerelease. One can only hope The Race will mirror The Loney’s success.

Intensely readable and intellectually sophisticated, The Race is one of the finest novels I’ve read. It deserves the accolades which have been heaped on it. Like the very best works of literary fiction, The Race establishes its own rules for play, its own grammar: it is a world unto itself, one which I hope very much you have the pleasure of visiting.


Helen Marshall has written two collections of fiction, Hair Side, Flesh Side (2012) and Gifts for the One Who Comes After (2014).