The Race by Nina Allan (book review).

Nina Allan is a British genre author whose reputation to date has been built on her short fiction, which combines a literary sensibility with experiments in form. In 2014, her novella ‘Spin’ won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction. ‘The Race’ is her first novel-length work, although it’s worth making the point straight away that Allan again experiments with form, as this is not a ‘straight’ novel but rather a series of four interlinked novellas.


The first and longest story, called ‘Jenna’, follows the fortunes of Jenna Hoolman and her brother, Del, as they try to make a living in the town of Sapphire in South East England. We are in a dystopian future, perhaps a century from now, where much of what we take for granted today has been destroyed across large swathes of Britain by the extensive and disastrous use of fracking. Both Jenna and Del are intimately involved in the sport of racing smartdogs, genetically engineered greyhounds which have some human DNA and can communicate telepathically with their human ‘runner’. Jenna makes fashionable gloves for the runners, while Del is a smartdog trainer. Their lives are changed forever when Del’s three year-old daughter Lumee is kidnapped by a local drugs gang to whom Del owes money. The only way Del can possibly get enough cash to pay the gang back and recover his daughter unharmed is by entering the biggest smartdog race of the year and winning it. Can he do it and will the family’s relationships survive the pressure?

‘Christy’, the second story, switches to contemporary Britain. The lead character, Christy Peller, is a writer who lives in Hastings, on the south coast of England. As a teenager, she invented the future town of Sapphire and the characters whose story we have just read, as an escape from her unstable and at times violent childhood. Her personal life is dominated by the impact of one particularly nasty incident during her teens, which makes it difficult for her to build close personal relationships. Much of the story revolves around Christy’s relationship with her older brother, Derek, a quick-tempered and violent man who does not react well to rejection. As she watches a succession of girl-friends come and go, Christy wonders whether she should do more to warn the other women about the kind of man her brother is.

The third and shortest part of the book is ‘Alex’. This is set in contemporary Britain some twenty years after ‘Christy’, and sees Alex Adeyemi, a man whose one-time girl-friend briefly went out with Christy’s brother, Derek, travelling to Hastings to meet with Christy so that he can help her unravel their mutual past.

The final part of the book, ‘Maree’, returns to the dystopian future world of ‘Jenna’ but some fifteen years on. It follows Maree Forest, an eighteen year-old with some sort of special power, as she leaves her adoptive family in Scotland and steams across the Atlantic Ocean to the country of Thalia, where she will be trained by the authorities to use her ability in some as yet undisclosed way. However, many of her fellow travellers are nervous about the journey as rumours abound of the convoys of giant whales that have smashed other boats to matchwood in the mid-Atlantic. Will Maree reach her destination?

There are several links between the four parts of the book. At their simplest, the two outer stories share some characters and take place in the same dystopian story universe, while the two inner parts share their main characters and take place in contemporary Britain. In addition, there is a fundamental link between the contemporary and futuristic storylines. However, most of my reactions to the book were based on the individual stories, rather than the links between them.

For me, the strongest part of the book was also the shortest. ‘Alex’ is beautifully written and provides the reader with great insights into the mind of the sensitive main character, who is haunted by the many instances of casual racism that he has faced throughout his life. I felt that I got to know Alex Adeyemi well in the less than thirty pages that this story lasts for and, when it ended, I was sad to say goodbye to him. I also enjoyed ‘Maree’, the final part of the book, which combines character insights and plot development in a natural way and uses the setting of the Atlantic Ocean to spectacular effect.

The first part of the book, ‘Jenna’ is to some extent a relatively straightforward dystopian adventure story. I enjoyed the setting and I liked Jenna Hoolman but it seemed to me that she was not really the main character. That was her brother Del, whose daughter had been kidnapped. The problem here is that Del is not a particularly sympathetic character and I found it just as hard to get emotionally engaged with his problems as he did with the other characters. In a similar vein, I enjoyed the second part of the book, ‘Christy’, least of all because the lead character has so little agency. There are good reasons for this, tied up in her traumatic childhood, but I found it difficult to repeatedly see her encounter a problem and then do nothing about it. Perhaps that might be how someone in her situation would act but it made for an unsympathetic protagonist and, in my case at least, a detached reader.

‘The Race’ is an interesting book from Nina Allan. For me, it succeeds and fails in equal measure. Some parts of it made me glad to be alive, while others left me cold. If you’re interested in experimental genre fiction, you’d do well to get hold of a copy so that you can make your own mind up.

Patrick Mahon

February 2015

(pub: NewCon Press. 260 page paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK), $19.99 (USA). ISBN: 978-1-907069-70-3)

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