The Rift by Nina Allan

Titan Books, 2017, 421 p. One of the novels on this year’s BSFA Award shortlist.

 The Rift cover

In 1994, when she was fifteen, Selena Rouane’s two years’ older sister Julie disappeared, an event which has haunted the family ever since. Years later, after Selena has had an on-off relationship with Johnny, who occasionally phones her from Malaysia where lay the job opportunity she ushered him off to, Julie returns to her life saying that in the interim she had been living on the planet Tristane in the Suur system, in the Aww galaxy. No mechanism is described for this. It just happened to her, as if by magic. Neither is there a description of how she managed to get back. Selena is convinced by her story, especially as Julie remembers a particular childhood toy, but their mother is not.

The Rift is oddly constructed. Most of the narration is from Selena’s viewpoint but other perspectives are introduced from time to time to broaden out the story Allan has to tell. We have diary extracts (and one from a terrestrial novel,) newspaper clippings, and a scientific report. In Selena’s recollections of the time of Julie’s disappearance the sections can read like a YA novel. At other times a fairly prosaic mainstream one.

Julie’s knowledge of Tristane’s geography and history as relayed to Selena is derived from the planet’s books, her memories sometimes presented as a gazetteer – akin to Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, only not so comprehensive. (Or did this comparison only come to my mind because of the connection between Allan and Priest?) Some emphasis is laid on a creature known as a creef, a parasite from Tristane’s system companion the planet Dea (once accessible by spaceship, now cut off,) which debilitates its victims from the inside, slowly eroding their mental and physical capabilities as described in a Tristanean novel The Mind-Robbers of Pakwa.

Creef are said to be like a silverfish or centipede. It is here that severe doubts about Julie’s intergalactic voyaging grow on the reader. Would a Tristanean novel really use such Earthbound terms? Then too there are the previous mentions of “Ziploc wallets”; the choice of the name Marillienseet for one of Tristane’s seas and Cally (pronounced Kayleigh) for Julie’s friend in her exile, seemingly pointing to an origin within Julie’s mind, since the band Marillion is referred to several times in the terrestrial sections of the book. Later we find that “centigrade” is the Tristanean unit of temperature. Plus in one of the “gazetteer” extracts Tristane’s main raw material, julippa, is stated to be similar to rubber – surely the entry’s writer would not even have known what rubber is; yet Julie would. And of course the correspondence between “julippa” and “Julie” is marked. None of these is presented as Julie trying to make a terrestrial comparison for the sake of clarity.

An invocation of the fake Grand Duchess Anastasia, Franziska Czenstkowska, otherwise known as Anna Anderson, is another powerful steer towards the possibility that “Julie”’s memories have been constructed from newspaper and other accessible information. The case was a brief media infatuation, as such things are. And what to make of Cally’s statement to Julie, “‘The written word has a closer relationship to memory than with the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones’”?

Allan’s characterisation is good, even the minor players in the story appear as rounded people (though those on Tristane are more barely sketched.) A nod to the importance of reading (and the lack of awareness in ignoring genre?) is given by the sentences, “Categorisation is a kind of brainwashing. How do you know which books will turn out to be important to you, until you’ve encountered them?’ Yet it is a big ask to read this as SF rather than a quotidian novel with SF trappings. Though she clearly feels an affinity with speculative fiction other qualities in Allan’s writing speak more loudly.

Two of the four BSFA Award shortlisted novels down. Two to go. I might not manage one of them though.

Pedant’s corner:- broach (several times; that particular style of jewellery is spelled “brooch”,) “her beside clock radio” (bedside clock radio,) “it still fit” (fitted,) “for not pursing it” (pursuing.) “The southern polar regions …… remains largely unmapped” (regions remain unmapped,) “[its support plinths] are still judged by certain scientists … to be a logistical impossibility” (from a gazetteer extract. Logistics is the art of moving, lodging and supply; the rest of the sentence does not support this meaning. The materials for the construction must have been able to be transported and lodged; that is, supplied. But if this was merely one of Julie’s imaginings Allan may have used the wrong term deliberately,) “the [organic] bond takes place at the sub-atomic level” (how is that possible? Organic bonds occur between atoms,) “on the playground” (the usual expression is “in the playground”,) “in her stocking feet” (it’s “stockinged feet”,) “‘one less thing to worry about’” (was in dialogue, but it still ought to be “fewer”, as it should five lines later, in plain text,) sung (sang.)

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