The Rift: would you believe?

Book cover: The Rift - Nina AllanJulie Rouane disappeared, leaving the house one afternoon and never returning. Selena and Margery learned to lived with her loss; Ray’s refusal to give up on her eventually killed him. But 20 years later, Julie calls Selena out of the blue. She’s back. And her explanation defies belief.

The Rift is one of those books that can sit comfortably on a scifi bookshelf or nestled in general fiction. Where you find it – and where your general reading sympathies lie – are likely to influence how you read it and how you feel about each of its characters. As such, it’s a brilliant study in perspective and bias – for the reader as well as for its protagonists.

The rift of the title is expressed on multiple levels: the rift that exists between the sisters both before Julie’s disappearance and after her return; the rift between worlds that she claims to have tripped through; and the rift between any two human beings, the gap between what we say, what we mean, what we hear and what we believe. The Rift is a study in love and trust; Selena reflects early on that we watch horror movies and criticise characters for disbelieving the friend who stumbles in claiming to have seen monsters; but we would doubt that same friend if they staggered into us in a supermarket with a similar story.

There must always be a rational explanation.

We’re given plenty of reasons to disbelieve Julie. Heartbreakingly, it’s clear from her first re-entrance that she doesn’t expect to be believed. She won’t talk about where she’s been; she wants to rebuild her relationship with her sister before she tests it.

Because Julie has been on another planet. On Tristane, her claims to have been from Earth were disbelieved. Trauma-induced dreams, Cally told her. Unsurprising, given what she’s been through (although Cally won’t tell her what she’s been through). One day, Julie will remember her family and her childhood; will understand why Cally has taken her in. Will stop asking questions about things she already knows. Cally loves her anyway, even if her brother Noah is less than keen to have Julie under their roof.

As a scifi reader, I was predisposed to give Julie the benefit of the doubt (and fascinated by her accounts of Tristane), but I empathised with Selena’s mistrust. Selena quickly accepts that this woman is her sister, but another world is a leap too far. And there are other circumstances around her past and her disappearance – facts of the matter that are slowly unravelled for us – that make it so very easy to believe that Julie’s memories of Tristane are no more than trauma-induced dreams. Would I have entertained believing Julie if I didn’t love SF novels? I doubt it.

Yet I couldn’t be angry with Selena for her disbelief, and neither is Julie. My heart could and did break for Julie’s isolation; the pressure of knowing she will be disbelieved. Her only route to being fully embraced back into the fold is to lie (whether we think she did go to Tristane or had a psychotic break of some sort). What an awful dilemma.

The Rift is beautifully written, no character particularly likeable, but all entirely credible – and worthy of our sympathy. The prose slips between tenses and jumps between fictional narrative, news snippets, academic accounts and even film scripts – which didn’t always work for me (the catfish towards the end felt particularly unnecessary), but I enjoyed the way that the book’s reflections on film worked to inspire questions about our attitudes to stories as truth or fiction, and about how the cultural context set by those films frames our emotional responses – our awareness of how we feel we ought to respond in certain circumstances. The recurring motif of Picnic at Hanging Rock is telling – a story about a disappearance, and a girl who is ostracised because of disbelief; also a story that is often thought of historical, when in fact it is entirely a work of fiction.

My only qualm is with regards to Margery’s final response to her daughters, which I found odd and convenient to say the least; but as the girls’ mother is at best peripheral to the story being told, perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

In the end, The Rift is more interested in the sisters’ relationship than it is in Tristane or the truth of what happened to Julie. The question is whether the rift between sisters can be healed, not whether the rift between worlds exists. As such, I think this may appeal to non-SF readers even more than to many SF fans, but those who enjoy works of literary SF will find much to admire. This is thought-provoking, at times chilling and often ambiguous in the best possible way.