The Rift by Nina Allan

On Saturday 16th July, 1994, 17-year-old Julie Rouane goes out for the evening and doesn’t return. Although no body is found in the ensuing search, it’s eventually assumed a local plumber, Steven Jimson, who is found guilty of several other murders of young women in the Warrington area, killed her. Julie’s three-years-younger sister Selena gets on with her life, but fails to fully engage with it:

“College had seemed pointless – or rather she hadn’t seemed good enough. The idea of selecting a future, rather than simply accepting the future that was offered, seemed – what? Selfish, inconsiderate, immoral even.”

But then, twenty years later, Selena gets a call from Julie. She has, it seems, been living and working in nearby Manchester for some time and wants to explain what happened to her. But when she does, finally, explain, her story isn’t about local serial killer Steven Jimson, but involves her being mysteriously transported to the distant planet of Tristane.

(The section of the novel where Julie tells her story is called A Voyage to Arcturus, and I admit it was to see if there was any influence from David Lindsay’s novel that I read Nina Allan’s The Rift. But that section opens with a school essay by Julie on Peter Weir’s film of Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, and it’s Joan, not David, that’s the influence on Allan’s novel. If David Lindsay’s interplanetary journey is to be evoked at all, it’s by way of ironic contrast: his Maskull journeys to distant Tormance to return transformed; Julie travels only to further lose an already lost part of herself.)

One of the problems with Julie’s story is that Tristane, the alien planet she finds herself on, is almost wilfully unexotic. For a start, she doesn’t get there by spaceship or some sort of technological transportation beam, she just wanders round a lake near Warrington till she finds she’s not on Earth anymore, but at an identical lake on Tristane. She’s found by a woman from that planet who instantly recognises her. It turns out, to this Tristane woman, Julie isn’t from Earth at all, but was born on Tristane and got lost from there, and now she’s back. The Tristane woman is called Cally, and her husband is Noah — very Earth-like names. One of them is described as wearing a parka, a specific type of coat which of course evokes a specific, non-alien image. This air of mundanity could, of course, be down to the fact that all this is being translated, for our benefit, into English. But the place-names on Tristane sound to me as though we’re being invited to believe they were deliberately, randomly, and somewhat carelessly made up: Tristane is in “the Suur System, in the Aww Galaxy” (the Aww Galaxy?), whose cities and regions include Fiby, Galena, the Wrssin Forest, Marillienseet (which comes short after Julie mentions having listened to Marillion on the day of her disappearance), Clarimond, Davis (Davis?), and “the vast underground metropolis of Staerbrucke”, which immediately made me think of Starbucks, and wonder if Julie hadn’t found herself staring at a discarded coffee cup by the lake near Warrington instead of journeying to a distant planet.

There are, though, two decidedly different things about Tristane. One is that siblings there are allowed to marry (though it’s socially frowned upon, and any offspring are expected to be genetically modified to prevent harmful mutations). The other is that Tristane has recently cut off all contact with its sister-planet Dea, and though there is no official reason for this, a bestselling book tells the story of a creature found on Dea called the creef, which plants its eggs in human victims, who proceed to walk around for several months becoming slowly depersonalised before being devoured from within.

Both of these elements can be read as being in some way symbolic of sibling relationships, either of being too close (sibling marriage) or too distant (separated sister-planets Tristane and Dea), with the added threat of loss of self in the second. Is, then, Julie’s story actually an attempt to communicate something about her relationship with her sister?

coverI’ve covered a number of lost-woman-returns-from-Faerie novels on this blog, including Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012), J M Barrie’s Mary Rose (1920), and Ramsey Campbell’s The Nameless (1981), as well as some in which the lost person doesn’t return, as with Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015) (where’s it’s a man who disappears) and Alan Garner’s Boneland (2012). The point in all of these novels is that, although the characters in them want to know what happened, and try to prove or disprove the returnee’s story either way (which never works), the novels themselves don’t care about the facts, but are about the experience of loss. With Joyce, for instance, it’s how all the promise of a young life can be derailed by the loss of someone upon whom that promise was built, while with Barrie it’s about how loss spreads out to affect, and infect, everyone involved.

Loss permeates The Rift, too, and not just around Julie. The book opens with an episode from Selena’s past, in which she befriends an older man, a maths teacher who keeps koi carp in a pond in his garden, as a memory of a woman he once loved in Japan. When it becomes known, locally, that this man left his previous job under suspicion of having an inappropriate relationship with a pupil, local youths break into his garden and pour disinfectant into the pond. There’s a sense, from this point on, of all of us — humans as well as fish — being just as vulnerable to destructive and incomprehensible cosmic forces that will take away all we care about in an instant:

“…the koi carp, how lovely they had been, how vulnerable to harm. The way we all are, here in our fish bowl. The whole stupid lot of us.”

Later, it’s revealed Julie also had a relationship with an older person, a woman this time, but also a teacher. This, and other parallels, infect all the narratives in this novel, and it’s a novel made up of many narratives, fragments of narratives, and documents: school essays by Julie, an excerpt from a crime novel based on her case, the story of a young woman who claimed to be the last of the Romanovs, encyclopedia entries about fish (which I confess I skipped after a while), the diary entry of a xenometallurgist. It starts to feel like one of those “terminal documents” from Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition that are used to both represent and attempt to resolve trauma, and which find echoes in other crisis narratives such as Alan Garner’s Red Shift, or Eliot’s The Waste Land. The Rift doesn’t quite have the same intensity as those, and I could never quite convince myself the switching from one narrative to another wasn’t seeking to represent the trauma at the heart of Julie’s situation, so much as avoid revealing the truth about her story. Though, having written that, I realise that being unable to face the truth is another aspect of trauma, too.

But it’s certainly the relationship between the sisters that’s at the heart of this novel. As children they used to play a game in which they pretended odd people were “aliens”, and the grown-up Julie at one point says “Remember when we were small, Selena, the worlds we made?” Is Tristane, then, an invitation to make another world, only not for play, this time, but to find common ground in the face of so much that is incomprehensible? Even before her disappearance, Julie and her sister were drifting apart. (And Julie also says, at one point, “I was never close to my sister Selena… I used to think I was, but I wasn’t, not even when we were kids”, which perhaps undermines my argument.)

But what this aspect of the novel most reminds me of is my take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where, if you’re caught in a world that has no solidity, the only thing to do is find someone to cling to, even if they’re half made up of lies themselves. Shared experiences bind people together, just as traumatic, isolated experiences draw them apart. And the world, to Julie, is exactly of this type:

“Nothing is like you think it is, Selena. Nothing at all.”

She doesn’t even know herself anymore:

“Once the truth of what had happened to me began to seep through, a rift seemed to open in my mind, a rift between the universe I appeared to be living in and the one I understood.”

She doesn’t return from Tristane (as Maskull/Nightspore does from Tormance) invested with hidden knowledge, but instead with a black hole inside her of loss and confusion. Sifting through the evidence makes no sense, and it’s only when Selena decides to believe in her — even despite some confusing for-and-against evidence — that Julie can perhaps start to be real to herself once more.

I’m not sure I completely got this book, and I have to say I found its mixing of many narratives to be somewhat draining rather than (as with Garner and Ballard) intensifying. But it’s one of those books that, having read it and looking back on it, it turns out to be more satisfying than it was while I was reading it, which often happens with me with difficult novels.

I still don’t get the thing about the fish, though.

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