|Image from titanbooks.com|
Titan Books, 11 July 2017
I'm so grateful to Titan for an advance copy of this book, which was one of my most anticipated of 2017 after Allan's stunning The Race last year.
The books have some similarities. Like The Race, The Rift is complex in form - the story is told both through viewpoint narratives and through interpolated artefacts: letters, lists, newspaper articles, school essays, bits of stories, diaries. These aren't all written by the main characters, so for example we get a section from the diary of a specialist metallurgist who's consulted about an item of jewellery, giving a shrewd sidelight on one of the main characters.
Like The Race, this book centres on a disappearance: Julie, elder sister of Selena, goes missing from the North Cheshire village of Lymm in the mid 90s. Nearly 20 years later, she turns up again and the heart of the book is the section describing what happens then as Serena attempts to make sense of what happened.
It's a shifting, teasing story. There are issues of identity. Is it really Julie? She tells a fantastic story about what happened to her, but it's a very partial story. Apparently Julie stepped in a blink from the banks of Hatchmere, a lake in Delamere Forest some way from Lymm, to an alien planet, Tristane. But almost immediately this clarity begins to wash out. Julie poses two mysteries: the craziness of her story but also the fact that the account given hardly covers a few weeks of the time she was missing.
A lot has been missed out, one feels, is being hidden, even as Allan relishes the opportunity to sketch the geography, history and society of Tristane. Indeed there's enough material there for whole volumes of a more conventional )and conventionally narrated) SF saga - the strange, mind eating parasites, the abandonment of travel to nearby planets, the thousands of years of history, the suspicion of a coverup - but I think making it into that would be waste: instead Allan presents this material in fragmentary form, scattered through the book, and it seems more real than any spacefaring epic I've read.
At the same time, the loss of Julie brings to a head a crisis in her family, making visible faultlines already there. Allan's writing is never more beautiful than picking apart the impact on father, mother, daughter - the guilt, the wondering what really happened, the dislocated lives, the need both to go on living and to not give up hope. In the course of this Allan explores - again almost in passing but never superficially, never without respect - the other lives touched, such as the teacher who befriended Julie, was hounded by the press and whose story ends up turned into a novel, extracts of which are quoted. There's a weird foreshadowing of this in a character introduced early on who seems to be going to play a significant part in the book but, after a tragedy, is barely heard of again. And yet, there are hints about him, echoes of him and his life in other parts of the book, other characters and other scenes. Somehow it is, I think, all part of a whole - something also glimpsed in the resonances between different parts of the story (such as Julie's using the word "temple" for Coventry Cathedral, inviting a comparison with her description of those in the Tristanian city of Firby.
Alongside Julie's and Selena's parents, there is also a focus on another tragic couple, Cally and Noah, with whom she seems to belong in Tristane (but is the Julie of Tristane the same person as the Julie of Earth? Is one dreaming the other and, if so, which is which?) Again, little is said explicitly about their situation though Allan is marvellous at implying things via a few words via behaviour such as Noah's endless nighttime expeditions.
It's an entrancing, audacious book. Somehow the games with language and setting reminded me of another book - M John Harrison's Viriconium. It's less in the subject matter or setting but more the way that Allan seems to create, almost, a body of myth in this book - a deposit of stories around a central theme but not all consonant, sometime contradicting one another but, by their separateness, actually supporting one another. (I note in passing that Harrison uses many placenames from the North West of England in those stories, Lymm included, and locates parts of at least one in Manchester).
It's also book that can't really be captured in a few words. The Rift put me in mind of a Kaleidoscope, perhaps, or of washing going round in a machine: all the colours and shapes are there but one can't quite see how they relate to each other. It works, though. I think, at a different level from a logical, unfolding story, those pieces assemble themselves, somehow. If you've ever tried to imagine a 4D object, you may see what I mean. You literally can't imagine the whole, but you can model it, capture it your mind at some other level. In the same way, this story comes together such that even the most improbable seeming details fit and make a mind of sense. In the same way, Selena's acceptance and rejection of Julie, and the response of Julie's mother Margery, and some of the other discoveries in this books, do click into place.
I see this as very much a 21st century equivalent to those stories of children being carried off by the fairies and returning years after, unable to explain where they've been, unable to be in the society they left, unable to go back. At the same time it's also very preoccupied with modern problems, with relations between parents and children/ teenagers, with shifts in loyalties and "growing up", with lonely people making their own worlds for themselves - or trying to.
Finally, is this book perhaps to some degree a comment on or response to Boneland, the recently published third part of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen trilogy? Both concern the aftermath of losing a sister, both look to the stars for explanation, both focus on the Cheshire meres and seem to speak of sacrifice, sacred landscape and mystery.
A magnificent achievement, and a book to go back to again and again, I think.