Science fiction and fantasy
The Silver Wind
by Nina Allan
"... the spaces, disjunctions, elisions, interactions and resonances between individual texts are foregrounded. The pieces of the book interlock - and don't - in ways that deliver much of their philosophical payoff only by implication ... As they unwind, plots and relationships dance in exquisite spirals until the movement of the narrative resembles the antique clockwork that is its subject.
I wanted to put the book down when I read that: it sounds insufferably pretentious and possibly impenetrable. Fortunately the stories are none of these things. They all feature a man called Martin, but it's a Martin at different stages of his life and in different versions of his life in London each time. His family and friends are subtly altered, but these alternate versions share linked fates. Sometimes his sister is called Dora, sometimes Dora is a friend, and so on. The cast of people in his life is loose yet full of recurring characters. The most enigmatic of these is Andrew Owen, or Owen Andrews, also known as the Circus Man. He's a dwarf with a thing about watches, and possibly a knack for not ageing. He turns up throughout the stories and mystifies Martin with puzzles and elegant timepieces, which may or may not enable time travel.
These stories aren't simple time travel adventures, however. They're much subtler, and they tend to focus on the mundane lives of the characters as much as on any weird stuff that's going on. Time's Chariot is as much about love, grief, and difficult family relationships as it is about the possibility of time travel. Similarly My Brother's Keeper is a ghost story on one level, but again it's more concerned with the personal. The story The Silver Wind is more dystopian, set in an alternate London that's under the boot of repression, a world that's the least like our own. In this tale Martin is an estate agent who gets interested in a former mental hospital that's at the centre of some horrific secret experiments. He's afraid to be caught breaking curfew, but he also wants to satisfy his curiosity and regain what he's lost, and he comes to suspect that this place holds the key.
Martin's stories deal with grief, regret and hope in a sensitive way, but I found I wasn't greatly moved by the main character. He's too lazy and unfocused to be likeable in some stories, and in others he's too indifferent to those around him, as in Rewind. Some of the minor characters are equally unendearing, such as Martin's extremely withdrawn mother Violet.
Another aspect I found difficult to like is the way Nina Allan often skips over the big dramas in order to focus on trivia. Often we only learn about major incidents in retrospect, with phrases such as [Character X] "had been dead less than three months when ..." These events are shocking enough to make you want to sit up and read on, but tantalisingly we never quite get to the blow by blow, close up and personal accounts of these things as they happen. Whether it's sex, death, coup, the supernatural or scientific breakthroughs, all are skirted around as though any emotions too strong will prove unbearable. It's a shame, because The Silver Wind is otherwise a strong collection of intriguing linked stories. It's perceptive and serious, and not too dense although it left me feeling that a re-read would uncover hidden nuggets. But I think if the author had dealt with raw emotion more directly there would be more warmth in this collection.
1st November 2011
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