SF of 2015: The Harlequin (2015) by Nina Allan

TheHarlequinOnce upon a demobilization…

Released in 2015 by Sandstone Press after winning The Novella Award competition, Nina Allan’s The Harlequin follows a war medic upon his physical and psychological return home to London at the end of The Great War. Haunted by specters of his past and present, Beaumont struggles to adjust to a life that no longer fits, (if it ever did), never fully aware of just how close he is to the edge.

Desirous to consume more of Nina Allan’s fiction after being blown away by her 2014 award shortlist darling, the diaphanous and anhedonic The Race, I was thrilled to see another release from her so soon. The Harlequin is a grim and somber novella that defies labels of horror, SF, and realism, while at the same time invoking all of those senses. One of the finest writers in SF today, Allan has this way of getting into the heads of her characters, of exploring completely and compactly, and, like The Race, The Harlequin toys with the reader’s impressions while also toying with the fictions of reality. Unlike The Race, Allan’s approach in The Harlequin teeters on the edge horror, gently brutal and brutally gentle, and the novella form provides a more traditional shape than its reality-seeping predecessor.

Longtime SF fans might wonder if, based on the title, this novella has any interaction with Harlan Ellison’s famous (and truly delightful) short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Probably not– well, maybe only slightly, with its undercurrent of a tick-tock-like nightmare stalking the protagonist as a gaudy Harlequin figure, more like a bomb than a punchcard, though. Actually, The Harlequin‘s feel and arc is more like the Pulitzer-winning Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison. Like wine and cheese, or tea and biscuits, I sometimes manage—unintentionally— to pair complementary new books with old books, as was the case with The Harlequin and Beloved. An unintuitive pairing at first– not one that jumps off the shelves holding hands– but upon finishing both, I realize they have more in common than I ever would have guessed.

Like the Pulitzer-winning Beloved, The Harlequin is inspired by a systemic, human-driven, global ordeal (American slavery in Beloved, WWI in The Harlequin), where the underlying mechanics of the story is driven by cultural trauma, by way of an isolated depiction of an individual’s horrific, yet conceivable, psychological reaction to that trauma. Both tales explore the descent into madness through the distressful circumstances of their antihero protagonists; two traumatized people who couldn’t be more different, yet who are driven to their behaviors by psychological forces, haunted by memories embodied as ghosts, incongruous with reality, yet weighty all the same. Surrounded by a community struggling with the same events in their own unique ways, while helping and hindering one another, the protagonists are isolated in their struggles, while representing greater society as a whole. Both novels dabble in the realms of magic realism and psychological horror, yet do so with such internal precision that they foster empathy, rather than cheap shock or gimmickry.

Where the novels stray from one another in tone is just as enlightening. Where Beloved has the emotional power of a cannonball to the heart (with cannonball metaphors that are as unsubtle as can be while still qualifying as metaphors), The Harlequin takes up that strange, yet entrancing, emotional stoicism that seems to be Allan’s signature move, fostering that sense of alienation that attracts SF readers looking for something different and special, another peek beneath the veil.


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21 thoughts on “SF of 2015: The Harlequin (2015) by Nina Allan

  1. bormgans says:

    Seems I’ll add both to the TBR-pile! thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. graycope14 says:

    Nice review! I had to look up “anhedonic” whose definition makes ‘The Race’ even more intriguing. How serendipitous to discover such a wonderful pairing. ‘Beloved’ is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Yet again, one of your reviews has had a big influence on me. More books to add to the ever-increasing pile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a good word, isn’t it?

      I’ve always been afraid of Beloved, thought I couldn’t handle it, but Morrison fogs up the intense parts because her protagonist can’t handle it, either. It’s really powerful and a critically-important piece of American literature. Everyone should read it.

      As for The Harlequin, I nearly skipped it when I saw it labelled as Horror, but it gave me no nightmares (my subconscious is a really suggestible reader) and I found it fascinating. And Allan is just a very impressive writer.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, you’ve definitely put Nina Allen on my radar. I still need to read The Race, and I ended up with a copy of Stardust, but this one has me very, very interested as well…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. antyphayes says:

    Your review of Harlequin reminds me of Olaf S! Nothing gratuitous here, I promise. Stapeldon wrote a strange novel between L&FM and SM called ‘Last Men in London’ which is thematically linked to L&FM. In this novel one of the Neptunians from the first book uses their ability to mind meld (or whatever) with an ancestor who happens to drive an ambulance in the First World War. The bulk of the novel is about this ‘ancestor’ who bears comparison to Stapledon (at least in terms of both being ambulance drivers in WW1).

    Apart from this coincidence the first section of ‘Last Men in London’ adds some tantalising depth to the world of the Neptunians of L&FM.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I almost mentioned Stapledon because of the war medic thing, but I figured I only noticed that bc he’s still so fresh in my mind. I convinced myself there were probably a lot of conscientious not-so-objectors who did the same thing… it seems like I’ve seen that occupation come up before, but I can’t remember who. I do want to read Last Men in London, even though it’s not as popular as L&FM. Now you’ve really piqued my interest!


      • antyphayes says:

        I read it 10+ years ago. I enjoyed the novel but it was no L&FM. An interesting insight into Stapeldon’s life (perhaps) mixed with some of his sciencefictional concerns – for instance the theme of “supermen” figures prominently in the last part of the novel in a fashion similar to his next novel Odd John. But it is the picture of the Neptunian society in the first section I remember best, a truly excellent coda to L&FM.


  5. You’d already convinced me to read her, but now I want to read her even more. Business as usual on the Moon Couch.

    I read Beloved once upon a time in school, and it is exactly the kind of emotionall heavy and sad that makes me really dislike a book. I can’t take it in fiction. And at that time in my life I dont think I was practiced enough in differentianting between a book that was good that I happened to not like and just a book I didn’t like/a bad book. So now when I think of Beloved all I can remember is “bad feelings.” Anyway. That’s a bit off point, but what I want to say is that I wish I had experienced that novel differently because it does seem to be a great book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally get what you’re saying about Beloved and it’s exactly why I’ve avoided it for so long. I actually got mad at myself for downloading it this month. I couldn’t figure out why I was so grumpy until I realized how much I dreaded reading it. I dread sad, depressing stuff, and I was afraid of the kind of power it might have over my emotions. I definitely don’t think I could’ve enjoyed it as a younger person, but I’m starting to discover that the stuff I’ve avoided due to marketing as ‘horror’ or ‘tragedy’ and the like isn’t anything so strong as to disturb me anywhere near what I can’t handle. And now in my 30s, I understand the act of fiction just enough to be engaged enough by her skills to distance myself emotionally. (I only cried during the part when the community starting donating food to Denver toward the end. Happy tears.)


      • I wonder if I would be able to distance myself this time around. I suspect it would disturb me even more actually, if I recall correctly it also includes the kind of sad that has become too disturbing to handle since becoming a parent. If it made me too sad in high school, when I never cried over anything (anything pop culture wise like books or movies) then it would probably destroy me now.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. liminalt says:

    Lovely review. I’ve been a bit leery of reading more WW1 based stuff as there seems to be a bit of a fashion for it these days; that and reading my own grandfather’s WW1 diary, which makes it far more immediate and personal. However you’ve tempted me with this now! And I still need to read Beloved.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] about my two favorite holiday reads: Nina Allan’s award-winning novella of psychological dread, The Harlequin (2015), and Dave Hutchinson’s fantastic “sequel” to his Fractured Europe series, Europe at […]


  8. marzaat says:

    Sounds like this one needs to go on my World War One list.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Harlequin by Nina Allan My review here. It’s unfortunate this already award-winning, psychologically chilling tale about the trauma […]


  10. […] Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Europe at Midnight, and The Thing Itself. I selected The Harlequin and Binti for the novella category. By year’s end, other interesting books will rise to […]


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