79-year-old runner Harry is preparing for his 50th race, a marathon, and nothing can come in the way of it. There are trousers to be returned that are too short, the pesky interviewer, Sam Appleby to deal with and fish to buy for dinner. While he goes about his day, his dead wife, Beti’s body is getting colder in their bed.
From the beginning of the novel it is understood that this is a narrator who can’t be trusted. Harry spots a mouse on the kitchen floor, and he is sure there is a mouse, because he saw it. But his wife can’t find a mouse and there are no droppings, nothing in the cracks or behind the bins. Harry is sure that the mouse is just silently biding its time to strike. Or was it a moth?
Either way, when Harry wakes up the next morning, with his wife lying dead beside him, he fails to realise it. Instead, he lets her have a lie in and continues with the day. As a narrator, Harry tries to encourage the reader to associate with him, bear witness to his thoughts and actions of the present day and the past, which he recounts in alternating sections. Among his recollections of the past is his ominous and mysterious “task” in Kenya that he continually brings up in order to justify and clear up to the reader and to Sam.
The narrative alternates between third person and first person, as Tony Bianchi depicts the characters’ individual histories and backgrounds to evoke empathy. Bianchi does this eloquently, easing from one segment into the next smoothly, aligning the past and present side by side.
Harry’s recollection of past races during his interview with Sam illustrates his gradual and constant love for racing. How it all started with simply everyday running around, as a child, until the need to run and to an extent, compete, became an essential and central part of his life. The race that stands out the most is ‘January 1943 Harry Selwyn v. God’, as Harry runs to the phone booth to save Father O’Keefe, who has a stroke. The idea of running against God to save a man’s life is humorous and witty, demonstrating Bianchi’s way of thinking outside the box.
As a native Welsh writer, the novel is very chattery, embedded with local Welsh lingo and phrases, adding richness to the writing. In an interview with New Welsh Review, Bianchi called the process of translating the novel from Welsh to English, “less translating and more rewriting”. He succeeds greatly in it, because the novel reads not like a jagged, translated text at all.
As a character, Harry is very articulate. He seems to have certain ‘tics’ and obsessive behaviours and is determined to stick to his schedule of the day by doing things in an organized manner. His actions are often described through free indirect speech, which captures his thoughts and everyday routine. Yet it is not overdone. At no point does it become repetitive or mundane, due to the suspense hanging in the background, the discovery that the reader so patiently awaits and keeps turning the page for. By engaging the reader, Harry completely immerses them in his day, as he continually mentions how much he relies on Beti’s opinion and guidance on trivial, daily matters. Simple things such as returning trousers, being by his side to calm his anxiety in social situations with their circle of family and friends. Things that, in his eyes, are “women’s matters”.
The irony is that throughout the day, he also makes excuses as to his wife’s whereabouts, which eventually gets him tangled up in a web of alibis. This arouses suspicion in the reader with regards to his character. There is a sense of evasion about him towards the fact of his wife’s death, which rings the question of whether he is genuinely distracted by the race, or avoiding the truth his subconscious already knows.
It almost becomes a sort of a murder mystery, as the characters enquire about Beti’s whereabouts throughout the day, Harry’s excuses for her not being around and him tragically not realising that she is dead. His behaviour is too calm, as eventually, he becomes a character that the readers sympathise with less and less, becoming shocked and frustrated at his actions instead. Therefore, as the novel progresses, it doesn’t so much as unfold as become more mysterious. The reader is left unsure as to where to stand with the main character.
Harry Selwyn’s Last Race deals with the obvious fact of life: death, and one man’s highly impressive way of detaching from and denying that reality. It depicts everyday life and themes that are often taken for granted in a refreshing and thought-provoking manner. The premise of the novel is innovative, and is eloquently written.