My most recent review filed at (but, I think, not yet published at?) the BSFA Review is of The Art of Space Travel, a collection of Nina Allan’s short fiction. It was a somewhat out-of-the-comfort-zone commission, which is exactly why I chose it; in addition to reading outside my home range, I’m also trying to write about that reading, because writing about reading tends to make me pay more attention to the reading. (Though this can sometimes make reading into something that feels close to being work, which is less than ideal… but then, if you write, reading is part of your work, isn’t it?)
Anyway, point being: while Allan is definitely a speculative writer, there’s a real singularity to her work, both stylistically and thematically, and that presents a challenge for reviewing. You want to describe what the work is doing—its affect, if you like—but you’re left stranded far away from your usual touchstones of comparison, grasping for a way to describe something which, while not exactly unprecedented, is not easily summed up.
This is, to be clear, the very best sort of challenge to have, and I find it fully endorses my choice to start reading more widely: I’m being stretched, as reader and writer alike. But it leaves the part of me that is a reviewer/critic with a sense of imposter syndrome it hasn’t had for many years: am I reading this right? Will anyone recognise the affect I’m trying to describe as the same one they encountered in the same work?
As such, it’s reassuring to read this bit from Paul Kincaid on Allan’s latest novel—a different book, to be sure, but the ontological duality (and associated epistemological doubt) that he describes here leaves me feeling that at least someone is seeing a similar mechanic underlying the production in question:
Nina Allan’s work occupies two worlds. One is our quotidian reality. This is privileged: it is where the novel opens and closes, it is unquestioned. This is the world we see around us, the one we take for granted as real. But at some point another world opens. We may spend some time there, but it remains little more than a glimpse, allowing us not quite enough to judge its nature. This world is questioned within the text, we are told to doubt it, but generally in a way that leaves us insecure in our doubt. This may be a realm as real as our own, it may be the fictional creation of one of the characters, or it may be a delusion arising from some sort of psychological damage. We do not know, we cannot be sure. But it profoundly affects the behaviour of at least one of the characters, so it is real to them.
In a way this is the trick that Christopher Priest pulled off in The Affirmation, but Allan does not collapse the two worlds into one at the end. This necessarily leaves everything ambivalent.
Two coextensive worlds, check; one world quotidian and unquestioned, one world strange and glimpsed only momentarily or fragmentarily, check; clear offer of off-ramps of doubt allowing—nay, sometimes even directing—the reader to dismiss the strange world as somehow imagined or false, check; ambivalence of enduring non-resolution of said worlds, check.
Yup, I feel a bit more confident about my own review, now. In the meantime, have you read any Nina Allan? You probably should; she’s bloody good.