Sometimes, the way we read a book depends on how it is presented to us. If we are told that a novel is a psychological thriller, that is what we expect to read; if we are told that it is science fiction, then we will read it differently.
The joy of Nina Allan’s second novel, The Rift, is that we could easily read it as a haunting account of the long term effects that a criminal act can have upon the minds of its victims. But it is written by a science fiction writer, it is published by a science fiction publisher, it comes garlanded with quotes from Jeff VanderMeer and Alastair Reynolds; and so we read it as science fiction. And what is stunning about it is that the novel is equally good either way.
It begins in the mid-1990s. Seventeen-year-old Julie and her younger sister, Selena, are enjoying a brief rapprochement, brought together by the fact that their parents’ marriage is going through a rocky patch. Then, one weekend afternoon, Julie suddenly declares that she is going out to visit a friend. She does not return.
There follows all the intrusive paraphernalia that occurs when a girl goes missing. For a while, the press are obsessively interested in the family, probing to find out what it feels like when someone goes missing and what might have driven the girl to go; though the family itself have no idea how they are supposed to feel or what has happened to them. The lake at a local beauty spot is searched and the peculiar mish-mash of objects recovered is dutifully recorded, but it provides no clue as to the whereabouts of Julie. The police briefly arrest two local people before reluctantly recognising that they are completely innocent and releasing them, though not before their lives and careers are severely damaged. One man who was briefly of interest in the case is later imprisoned for rape and murder, but continues to insist that Julie was not one of his victims. In time, the fuss dies down, the police scale back their investigation, the case is filed away as an unsolved mystery. The family is left to lick their wounds.
And the wounds are deep. The mother, Margery, wants to get back to normal; but her husband, Ray, cannot let it be. He becomes obsessed with trying to find his daughter, refusing to accept that she is dead, and chasing down ever more tenuous notions such as alien abduction. The couple divorce, Ray becomes mentally unstable, eventually dying of what we might presume is a broken heart. As for Selena, she finds herself adrift in life, unable to formulate plans or chase ambitions; she goes to college, but drops out; she begins a relationship, but is unable to go with him when he chases an unmissable opportunity to Malaysia. Twenty years after her sister’s disappearance, she is working in a small, high-price jewellery story in Manchester. Her exuberant boss, Vanja, is constantly chiding Selena to make more of herself, with no effect.
It is worth noting that Vanja is Ukrainian, and her unseen husband would appear to have criminal connections. One of the interesting things about this novel is how many of the secondary characters are immigrants or outsiders or somehow disconnected from society. In an understated way, this is a book filled with aliens.
Then Julie reappears. She contacts Selena out of the blue, and the two begin, nervously, tentatively, to get to know each other again. At first, Selena has doubts: can this really be Julie? But Julie knows things that nobody else would. Yet there are still questions: Julie says that she lived for a while in Coventry, and is now back in Manchester, working at a hospital. Why has she not been in touch before? Couldn’t she have eased Ray’s final agonies, perhaps even saved his life? And what actually happened all those years ago? That’s a part of the story that Julie is conspicuously failing to tell.
We’re over a quarter of the way through the novel before the focus shifts from Selena to Julie, and she begins to tell her story. Effectively, she fell through a rift in space-time, finding herself on another planet called Tristane. The novel is full of rifts – the rift between Julie and Selena, the rift between Margery and Ray, the rift in the family and in Selena’s efforts to live her life caused by the absence of Julie – but this rift between the worlds is the one that is central to the novel, the one that is repeatedly referred to as a rift.
In some ways, the most impressive thing about this novel is the way Allan describes this other world. It is not the pristine, glittering strangeness we find in so much sf, or a place that emphasises how utterly alien it is. Tristane is a mundane place, familiar, workaday, slightly scuffed at the edges. In some ways it is more advanced that Earth: at some point in the past, Tristane colonised a neighbouring world, Dea, but later abandoned the colony and withdrew to Tristane, and no one really knows whether the colony survived or not. In other ways it is less advanced: roads seem to be unmetalled, and transport is by horse and cart rather than internal combustion engine. Julie is taken in by Cally and her brother/husband, Noah, who seem to know her well though she has no previous memory of Tristane. She spends an unspecified period of time living with them in their cosy wooden home in a seaside suburb of Gren-Noor near the large city of Fiby.
Allan makes extensive use of documents: hand-written police reports, newspaper articles, letters, extracts from novels and other books. This pattern continues when the setting is Tristane, so we peer over Julie’s shoulder at the history books and stories she reads there. So effective is this technique, that towards the end of the novel passages that seem to be taken from Wikipedia about types of catfish shift almost imperceptibly into similar passages about the rainfish of Tristane, blurring the boundaries between the worlds in a way that makes us conscious of what we, as readers, are prepared to accept as real and imaginary.
That choice, between the real and the imaginary, is at the heart of the novel when Julie, after having sex with Noah, suddenly finds herself back on Earth with nothing to show for it except a chunky and rather ugly necklace. How much can Selena believe this crazy, fanciful story? How much can she afford to believe it without doubting her own sanity? When Selena eventually arranges for Margery and Julie to meet, her mother flat out refuses to accept that Julie is who she claims to be. She’s an imposter, Margery insists, for whatever nefarious reason. Yet Selena is convinced that this really is Julie, even if she cannot bring herself to believe in a story about visiting another world. When Julie’s necklace is analysed (by a colleague of Vanja, another immigrant), it turns out to be made of extraterrestrial material, but that proves to be inconclusive; extraterrestrial metal does not imply extraterrestrial manufacture.
And that very lack of conclusion is how the novel concludes. We are offered several likely scenarios: that Julie really was killed all those years ago; that this really is Julie; that Tristane is real; that it is all a product of her imagination. Which of these we choose to accept is down to how we choose to read the novel. But whichever explanation you choose to accept, one thing is undeniable: this is a haunting and powerful novel, and could well be one of the best books of 2017 so far.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.