Nina Allan, The Race (2014)
Nina Allan is one of my favourite contemporary short story writers; but, as her collections often take on interesting larger shapes, I’ve often wondered what a novel by her would be like. Well, now here’s The Race, and it may just be the best thing Allan has written yet.
We begin in the company of Jenna, who lives in Sapphire, a small southern English town whose main (and pretty much sole) reason for existence is the racing of genetically-enhanced ‘smartdogs’. Jenna makes gloves for the smartdogs’ human runners, which is one of the few bright spots in her life. And her brother Del is pinning his hopes on one last smartdog race, which may yet steer his life in a better direction.
There are some indications that this isn’t the future of our world, but essentially The Race seems fairly straightforward – until we reach the second part and meet Christy, who certainly lives in a recognisable contemporary England, and is the ‘author’ of what we’ve just been reading. Christy has a dodgy brother named Derek, and the temptation is right there to map her life on to Jenna’s, even though it doesn’t quite fit. A third part jumps forward twenty years to a lover of Derek’s partner, and challenges key assumptions from Christy’s narrative. The fourth and final part returns to Jenna’s world, and Del’s grown-up daughter Maree, who was kidnapped as a child… but all may not be as it seems.
The Race is a novel of thwarted lives and limiting horizons: chances are missed, landscapes are washed out, knowledge is incomplete. This is also reflected in the book’s structure and language: its individual parts are integral to each other, yet don’t quite cohere. And rarely come across a novel so finely calibrated to the different weights of realist and science-fictional prose: when Maree’s section includes place names like ‘Thalia’ and ‘Crimond’, their effect is very precisely estranging – just as the world seems to be opening up, so it fades back into obscurity. The Race may end in incompleteness, but its sense lingers on.
Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1986)
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1989)
Twin brothers are sent from the Big Town to the Little Town to live with their grandmother. With the local school closed, they teach themselves at home: having been given a title, one of the boys will write an account of something that happened to them; the other will check it with a dictionary, and determine whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’. The criteria for doing this seem simple enough: “the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do” (p. 27).
Of course, it’s not that simple; and the reason is right there in that quotation: everything we read is mediated through the boys’ viewpoint – and it’s a viewpoint that distorts a world we may otherwise expect to recognise. The boys eschew words that describe feelings, dismissing them as too vague. They even eschew feelings, undertaking a series of exercises to harden themselves, leading to escalating acts of cruelty – all told in the twins’ direct, matter-of-fact tone. Never again will I use an expression like ‘spare prose’ without thinking; the writing in The Notebook is so austere that it hurts.
Agota Kristof (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who became an exile in Switzerland at the age of 21; there, she learned French, which became the language in which she wrote her novels. The Notebook was her first, at least partly inspired by her childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Hungary. But all the geographical and temporal markers are stripped away from the brothers’ world, in sharp contrast to the precision of how they narrate events. The end result is a nightmarish timelessness that’s very hard to shake off. Kristof wrote two more books featuring the twins, which I’m sure I will go on to read one day. But The Notebook is complete in itself, ending in just the right place, ending on an image which is simple and stark, yet – in its own way – impossible to imagine.