The Silver Wind by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Dan Hartland. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

In Nina Allan’s novels, characters are orthogonal to each other, constantly missing out on connection. In 2017’s The Rift, for example, the narrator’s long-lost sister – feared for years to have been murdered as a girl – returns from what she insists has been exile on another planet. Her identity is never clear, least of all to her. In 2014’s The Race, the narrators of its successive parts all seem to be reiterated versions of each other, but in what sequence or by what logic is obscure, perhaps irrelevant.

In this elusive and allusive approach, Allan recalls M John Harrison or Gwyneth Jones, writers who were championed during the British Boom of the early 2000s but whose career long pre-dated it. For her part, Allan first appeared towards the end of the Boom, and has since matured into perhaps the most interesting writer it left to us.

The writings that comprise The Silver Wind in large part predate those later novels. Reissued now by Titan Books, it was published in an earlier form by Eibonvale Press in 2011. “These are stories of a time in my life as a writer,” Allan writes in a foreword; the book even includes an “out-take” a story written more than ten years ago, 2008’s “Darkroom”, which in its reliance on dialogue and rather choppy structure demonstrates just how far Allan’s lyrical, resonant and complex writing has come in the intervening years.

None of this is to say that The Silver Wind is juvenilia. Its selection of stories – which, while separate standalone pieces, also, in the manner of the sequential narratives of The Race, collate and collide into a much richer narrative – include arresting and affecting writing, vivid imagery and haunting ideas. For example, the progress through a barren, mutated heath of Martin Newland, the sequence’s protagonist (if not its hero), takes place in a particularly weirded landscape and sticks especially in the memory:

I saw she was disfigured, quite literally de-formed, squeezed apart and then rammed back together again in a careless and hideous arrangement that bore as little resemblance to an ordinary human face as the face of a corpse in an advanced stage of decomposition.

The Silver Wind, p. 199

There is an air of H.G. Wells and Dr Moreau in that passage, and this is no coincidence: The Silver Wind is a novel about a very particular kind of time travel, and Wells is its leitmotif; unusually for Allan, her readers here must have a taste for pastiche. There is some steampunk and some horror, a sprinkling of DH Lawrence and a soupçon of Proust. Stylistically, it is a gumbo of fin de siècle effects.

Narratively, it is a palimpsest. It begins with Owen Andrews, an ambitious watchmaker apprenticing with a legendary horologist in London. Andrews becomes obsessed with building a tourbillon, a form of watch escapement invented by Louis Breguet to reduce the impact of gravity on the mechanism – and which may, on a grander scale, also allow human beings to exist, and move, at the centre of a similar bubble.

Owen is in love with a woman from his village, Dora Newland, who opts instead to marry a local war hero. The next story in the sequence switches perspective, and seemingly reality, to a brother of Dorothy who in the previous story seemed not to exist: Martin, he of the heath-based exploration. From there, each story shifts through various versions of Newland’s life – lives? – until he comes close to understanding the strange effect of time on a person’s experience of reality … and of other people. “[Time] is like water pouring out of a tap […] once it’s been spilled there’s no calling it back again” [p. 168].

Allan’s shifts of reality are indicated obliquely: it is 1920, but Paris is connected to London by rail; it is 1940, but the British government seems to have a rather different make-up. “I felt dazed not so much by the scale of the changes as by their subtlety,” writes one time traveller. The reader’s disorientation is part of the novel’s effect: it isn’t designed quite to align, like a watch mechanism too long tinkered with. 

This sort of effect is extremely difficult to achieve in a manner that satisfies; perhaps The Silver Wind isn’t quite as convincing in achieving this balance as Allan’s later works. But it is nevertheless sinuous, sly and affecting; and in this offers a sure sign that Allan is in the very first rank of contemporary SF.

Copyright Dan Hartland. All rights reserved.