This review of The Silver Wind by Nina Allan first appeared in Interzone 237, November-December 2011.
When does a collection of linked stories turn into a novel? It must entail that moment when the congeries of stories tells us more than any individual story can do. That is certainly the case with this slim volume from Nina Allan.
The book consists of four stories and an afterword (which amounts to a fifth story). Individually, there is one overtly science fictional story, and three others that are, to all intents and purposes, mainstream except for a subtle temporal quirk that perhaps shifts them towards the fantastic. But collectively, taking account of the interconnections and resonances that run between them, it is impossible to read this book as other than science fiction. That delicacy of tone, that subtlety of intent, is what makes this such an arresting volume.
In all bar one story (where the viewpoint character is unnamed), our way into each fiction is called Martin. In one story he has a sister named Dora, who dies; in another, he has a brother named Stephen, who dies; in a third, he has a colleague named Dora. Names recur, but that is an old trick in fiction, it can suggest more than is actually in the story, can make us read a recurrence of character and not just of name. But here, reading across the stories, we begin to realize that it is the same character, and the dislocation from one story to the next is what we are being directed towards.
The most obvious link between the stories is the ‘Circus Man’, with that faint air of menace and unease that is part of the affect of all clowns. This one is a dwarf that appears, usually at a distance, on the seafront at Hastings. To Martin, the dwarf is a harbinger of threat that can never quite be put into words and that, in the event, never materializes. But the clown is also an expert watchmaker whose fine and extraordinary timepieces provide a connecting thread through the volume. Because watches control time, yet for Martin and for everyone around him, time is out of control, time is running out, time is what must be seized if we are to take control of life yet it is forever slipping through our grasp.
Time is an old standby in science fiction, of course, but what is interesting about Allan’s use of the theme is that it is not time as a dimension that is being explored, but the more common or garden mystery that we all experience every day, what we measure when we look at our wristwatches and yet what cannot be measured. Only one of the stories, ‘The Silver Wind’, uses time in an overtly science fictional manner. It is an alternate history, in this case Martin is a salesman in a run-down, dystopian England, its characteristics sketched in briefly but effectively. In this world Circus Man is Andrew Owens, who makes devices that really can control time, and by chance Martin finds himself transposed into an England that more closely resembles our own. In this new world he goes regularly to Paddington Station where, he is confident, he will one day run into Andrew Owens again. This is significant, because in the next story, ‘Rewind’, Martin is an estate agent in a contemporary England who takes his new girlfriend to Hastings looking into memories of his childhood there (a childhood that recalls aspects of the first two stories without precisely matching them). Here he encounters Owens, ‘this little circus freak who had somehow learned to stop the clock, or turn it back’ (134), and Owens mentions their meeting at Paddington, which Martin no longer recalls. It is this reference, late in the last story, that somehow turns a collection of linked stories into a novel, that makes the dissonances and dislocations between the various versions of Martin’s life so telling.
These are good stories, but their sum is far greater than their individual parts.