Friday 27 March 2015

The Race

(March 2015)

I came into this book almost completely blind, buying it simply on the back of its appearance on this year’s shortlists for both The Kitschies and the BSFA Awards and the reasonable cost of the ebook edition (price-point matters, kids!). I think I lucked out massively in this regard, because the less you know about this going in the better. However, it’s almost impossible to talk about without spoilers, so why don’t you track yourself down a copy and come back once you’ve had a chance to read? There are dogs in it, if that helps.

It begins in a not-so-far-future southeast England town of Sapphire, home to communities blighted by the fallout of ecological and military disaster but still clinging on through their association with smart dogs, genetically engineered greyhounds sharing telepathic links with their human ‘runners’. It’s all very post-industrial dystopia in a particularly English, Loachian manner; everything seems washed-out and dried up, as though the empty skies above the dunes on which the dogs train could stretch forever, leaching physical and emotional colour from the real world. ‘Liminal’ I believe is the word, and it’s quite brilliantly done; the language mimicking and enhancing the translucent not-quite-here-yet-not-quite-thereness of the setting.

The plot seemed a little weird though. The niece of the narrator gets kidnapped after her dog-trainer father gets too far into his side business of drug-dealing, and he conceives of the thunderingly unoriginal and foolhardy plan of paying the ransom by bringing his favourite dog out of retirement and betting it all on one last big race. All this happens within the first 10-15% of the book and once the big race day arrived at barely 20% in, I did find myself wondering exactly how things were meant to progress from there; I mean, the damn thing’s called The Race so where’s there to go after that?

Everywhere and nowhere, would be the answer. The Race isn’t the dénouement, it’s the frame. The frame for a book which bears structural similarity to Cloud Atlas, only with a tighter field, a more painfully personal locus, and a much greater sense of ambition. As Part Two opens the Sapphire glasses of YAish dystopia are removed and you realise that you definitely aren’t in Kansas anymore. Where you are is another question entirely as the middle sections of the book tell a pair of interlinked tales set in the more prosaic ‘real’ world, before the final part takes us back to the same continuity as Sapphire and we meet again the kidnap victim, this time as a teenager. A more extensive plot-summary would be wholly useless, as this is not about linear storytelling at all, it’s about, well, I’m not quite sure really. Identity? Belonging? The paths not taken? How we invent and reinvent both ourselves and the worlds we inhabit? Let’s see if a couple of quotes will help:

       He felt removed from his own world, the way he always tended to do when he was obliged to sleep in a bed that was not his own.

       Suppose I’m just a template, a mirror-image of another girl in another world who even at this moment is begging me for her life back so she can stop having nightmares.

Hmm, not really. Two thought now occur. The first is that I’m probably writing this too soon after having finished and things need more time to kick around in my head before any real sense can be made of them. The other is that the last time I had this much trouble framing my immediate reactions to a book was Hawthorn and Child, and that’s not a coincidence. Both books, I think, play on the need for humans to impose patterns, to form relations (in every sense) even when things might not necessarily fit together. Invention is not a smooth process where one stage follows seamlessly from the next, but a continual, halting, stuttering journey on which forward progress is very far from assured.

Truth be told though, I really don’t know what to think about this book, apart from the fact that it’s very, very well done indeed: stylistically accomplished, searingly intelligent, and capable of sly humour and harrowing trauma within the turn of the page. I can only advise that you read it and invent your own meaning by yourself. There are dogs in it, if that helps.

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