MonthNovember 2011

Nina Allan, The Silver Wind (2011)

Nina Allan is gaining a reputation as one of the most interesting British writers of speculative short fiction to emerge in recent years; her new collection is ample demonstration of why. The Silver Wind collects five ‘stories of time disrupted’ which are set in London and/or Sussex (though not necessarily the same ones), and which ostensibly share characters (though a character in one piece may be different when we encounter them again in another). The ultimate story of the volume may lie just as much in the spaces between tales as it does in the tales themselves.

Our guide through most of the collection is Martin Newland, a young man who has been fascinated with time ever since he was given a beautiful watch (which he calls his ‘time machine’) as a birthday present. We first meet Martin in ‘Time’s Chariot’, where his uncle Henry gives him a Longines watch for his eighteenth; much as Martin treasures the watch, though, his greatest love is for his sister Dora – a love which verges on the incestuous, and constantly threatens to tip over. Just as Dora is planning to study at Cambridge, however, she is diagnosed with terminal leukaemia; Martin’s greatest wish is that he could turn the clock back.

In the second story, ‘My Brother’s Keeper’, things are rather different. Here, there is no Dora, and never has been; rather than facing the loss of a sister, Martin has already lost a brother – Stephen – whose ghost remains by Martin’s side (and, indeed, can be seen by a few others). This Martin Newland’s first watch was a Smith, given to him at the age of fourteen by his mother’s friends, Judith and Myra. The story chronicles that birthday, when Martin visits Judith and Myra at their seaside cottage, becomes injured on the beach, and is helped in an unexpected way by Andrew Owen, an ex-circus performer who has an affinity of his own for time.

The figure of Andrew Owen reappears in all five stories, though in the title piece (which provides the hub of the collection), he is Owen Andrews, a clockmaker who allegedly worked with the army on experiments involving time travel. The Martin of this story visits Andrews in the hope that he might be able to find out how to avert the accidental death of his wife Miranda. What Martin discovers, however, is that that it’s not ‘time travel’ as such which is possible, but travel into different versions of reality: ‘The time stasis might grant you access to what you think of as the past, but it wouldn’t be the past that you remember. You wouldn’t be the same and neither would [Miranda].’

So that’s what we have in The Silver Wind: five different versions of reality; though it’s left to the reader to decide how (or indeed if) they fit together. What’s particularly striking about these stories is how grounded they are. Even when the collection is at its most fantastical, in the title story, Allan’s keen sense of place and solidity of detail anchor the supernatural (including the fairytale concept of a forest haunted by monsters – here subjects escaped from an experimental facility, whose bodies have been twisted by their ordeal) in a hard reality.

But Allan’s main focus in The Silver Wind is less on the fantastic and more on her characters and their emotions. This is perhaps felt most keenly in ‘Time’s Chariot’, which confronts the simple implacability of loss. That intensity of focus may slacken a touch as the collection moves towards the more overt fantastication of the title piece; but it’s right there again in the fourth story, ‘Rewind’, where our viewpoint character is Miranda, and the question is whether she and her work colleague Martin will come together – for, as we already know, happiness is far from guaranteed in these stories.

‘Time travel’ in The Silver Wind is not a magic solution to the characters’ problems – it’s not about getting a second chance at making good an old situation; at best, it gives you a new situation, with its own potential pitfalls. But there’s a note of optimism in the final piece, ‘Timelines: An Afterword’, which puts a different spin on the previous stories, and suggests that things can turn out all right if you’re lucky – or if you take control of life yourself. However you view these five stories linking together, they add up to an intriguing collection.

Nina Allan’s website
Eibonvale Press
Sofia Samatar reviews The Silver Wind for Strange Horizons;

New Voices: the W&N sampler

So I was lucky enough to win a copy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson’s ‘New Voices’ sampler, containing extracts from the beginnings of six of their forthcoming debut novels. As I’m always keen to discover interesting debuts, I have decided to read and rate each extract; as with my round-up of the Waterstone’s 11 earlier in the year, the ratings are based on how strongly the extract makes me want to read the book.

Shelley Harris – Jubilee (Dec 2011)

In this extract, we meet Satish Patel, a Ugandan-born doctor who came to the UK as a child. At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the young Satish was the central figure in a photograph which has become iconic – great for Andrew Ford, the photographer; but Satish’s relationship with the image has been more ambivalent. Now, thirty years on, Ford wants to stage a reconstruction of the photo.

Of all the extracts, this is the one that for me has the best individual turns of phrase, and I find the set-up very intriguing indeed. The excerpt presented here is probably too short for one to get a firm impression of the novel, but I’d certainly keep an eye out for Jubilee in the shops.

Anticipation rating: ***½

(EDIT, 8th Jan: I’ve now reviewed Jubilee here.)

Ayad Akhtar – American Dervish (Jan 2012)

Akhtar’s introductory note says that he wanted his novel to give ‘a felt sense of what it was like to grow up Muslim in America’. His narrator is Hayat Shah, whose mother’s friend Mina comes – at Hayat’s mother’s instigation – to the US in 1981 from Pakistan, where Mina’s husband has divorced her and left her (for the time being) with their baby son. The extract goes up to a few weeks after Mina’s arrival, and suggests that she is an extraordinary individual who will change the lives of Hayat and his family.

These first couple of chapters aren’t bad, but neither is there anything in them which makes me feel particularly inclined to read on. Of course there’s every chance that American Dervish takes off further in, but I’ll be checking the reviews first.

Anticipation rating: ***

Harriet Lane – Alys, Always (Feb 2012)

Frances Thorpe, sub-editor on a newspaper’s books desk, is out driving one Sunday evening when she comes across a crashed car and an injured woman; she helps as best she can, but later learns that the woman has died. Though Frances thinks that is the end of that, she discovers that the dead woman – Alys –  was married to Laurence Kyte, a celebrated novelist – so she accepts the opportunity of meeting the victim’s family. The extract ends as Frances is embellishing her account of what happened at the scene of the accident, and formulating plans to attend Alys’s memorial service.

Now, this has caught my attention. It’s not so much particular turns of phrase, but there’s a real energy and momentum to Lane’s prose, which I find compelling. There’s a sense at the close of the extract that Frances’s story could go anywhere; and I want to find out where, so I will definitely be reading this book.

Anticipation rating: ****

J.W. Ironmonger –The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder (Mar 2012)

Adam Last ‘s friend Maximilian Ponder has died. As he lifts the body on to the dining room table, Last describes the scene in careful detail, just as Ponder would have wanted. Before he calls out the police, Last begins to go through the volumes of Ponder’s attempt to catalogue the entire contents of his own brain.

This extract has perhaps the most distinctive style of the six; based on what I’ve read, it’s a slightly mannered, slightly long-winded style which has the potential to be either gloriously eccentric or just annoying. I must reserve judgement for now, but err on the side of optimism, and am certainly intrigued.

Anticipation rating: ***½

Kenneth Macleod – The Incident (Apr 2012)

Macleod’s narrator is a British lifeguard in Germany; we establish from the short prologue that he feels responsible for the deaths of two children, but learn no specifics. The narrator then turns to recalling the story of his grandfather, Gordon McInness, in the Second World War: Gordon is a merchant seaman whose ship is pressed into service as a tanker; the extract ends as the ship is hit and sunk by a torpedo from a U-boat (though the crew survive).

There’s some good imagery at the start of this extract, but the rest of it didn’t hold my interest so much. The novel as a whole promises to show how its different narrative threads – including a third one, set in the Cold War – link together. That overall picture may well be interesting, but The Incident won’t be going on my to-read list as yet.

Anticipation rating: ***

Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Jun 2012)

Bee Branch’s mother, Bernadette, has vanished (presumably she has walked out on her family; it’s not clear just from this extract). The text of the novel (insofar as the excerpt goes, anyway) is presented as a compendium of documents from the weeks running up to the disappearance, compiled by Bee in an effort to piece together what might have happened and why.

As with the Ironmonger, I suspect that Semple’s narrative technique has the potential to enthrall or frustrate; for now, I like it – the extract is drily amusing, revealing a burgeoning dispute between neighbours over rampant blackberry vines; a ridiculously laid-back school; and more. I reckon Where’d You Go, Bernadette could be well worth a look.

Anticipation rating: ***½


Out of six extracts, then, I definitely want to read one of the novels (Alys, Always), and am intrigued by another three (those by Harris, Ironmonger, and Semple). I think that’s pretty good going.

Richard Christian Matheson, ‘Last Words’ (2011)

The anthology closes with this short (four-page) piece whose narrator reflects on the value of preparing some god last words for oneself (‘All books have an important final line. All movies have one. So should a life,’ p. 425) – but, though the sentiment may be reasonable, the nature of and reasons for the narrator’s interest in the matter are more disturbing. As a piece of fiction, I’m not sure that ‘Last Words’ achieves a great-enough density of language to balance poetry and gruesomeness.

Rating: ***

Richard Christian Matheson’s website

Elizabeth Hand, ‘Near Zennor’ (2011)

After the sudden death of Anthea, his British-born wife, American Jeffrey Kearin discovers a cache of letters from her childhood which reveal  that the thirteen-year-old Anthea and a couple of friends visited Robert Bennington, a children’s writer who was later charged with molesting.  Jeffrey travels to England to investigate, and finds that one of the girls, Moira, ran away later in the year and was never seen again; he makes his way to Bennington’s old home-county of Cornwall in search of answers, but things only get more mysterious.

Hand’s story has a nice atmosphere of strangeness, and its fantastic elements are among the most interesting and distinctive in the anthology. Overall, though, I don’t think ‘Near Zennor’ reaches the same level of intensity as some of the other stories.

Rating: ***

Elizabeth Hand’s website

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man (2011): The Zone review

Today, The Zone have published my review of Robert Jackson Bennett‘s second novel, The Company Man, a tale of murder and corporate intrigue set in a version of early 20th century America dominated by strange, advanced technology. Bennett’s debut, Mr Shivers, was one of my favourite books of 2010; his latest does not quite reach the same heights, but at its best shows the same refreshing and distinctive imagination. I’ve given The Company Man 3 stars.

Click here to read the review in full.

Michael Marshall Smith, ‘Sad, Dark Thing’ (2011)

High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains lives Miller, who barely knows what to do with himself since his wife and child left; he spends his Saturday afternoons driving around, exploring the local side roads. What he finds on this particular exploration may be just what Miller needs to snap him out of his inertia.

Smith’s story has some of the best writing I’ve yet come across in this anthology: a dry, sparse prose style that perfectly complements both the setting and Miller’s state of mind. And some great turns of phrase, such as this wonderfully creepy image of Miller with too much time on his hands:

Time crawled in an endless parade of minutes from between those cracks, arriving like an army of little black ants, crawling up over his skin, up his face, and into his mouth, ears and eyes. (pp. 340-1)

The true horror of this tale is the horror of emptiness, of an empty existence above all. Smith conveys that horror very well indeed.

Rating: ****

Michael Marshall Smith’s website

Christopher Priest, The Islanders (2011)

Christopher Priest’s work has given me some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had, so I opened The Islanders – his first novel in nine years – with no small amount of anticipation. For this book, Priest returns to the world of the Dream Archipelago, setting for a number of short stories and, in part, 1981’s The Affirmation (rest assured that The Islanders stands alone, though readers of the earlier works will recognise a few names and concepts). The Dream Archipelago is a great, world-spanning array of islands; a neutral zone between two countries at war. What we’re presented with in the pages of Priest’s book is ostensibly a gazetteer of some of these islands; but, as well as the standard geographical information one would expect, some of its entries comprise narratives or other sorts of text.

Who (within the context of the fiction) wrote and compiled these entries is uncertain; but the gazetteer’s introduction is credited to one Chaster Kammeston, an Archipeligan native and celebrated writer in the world of the book. Not that Kammeston is convinced that the volume he’s introducing will be of much use, as actually mapping and navigating the Archipelago are nigh on impossible: partly because there are so many different naming conventions for the same geographical features (the ones that actually have names, at least); and partly because of the naturally-occurring “temporal vortices” which distort one’s very perception of the world. Kammeston is even unsure whether he’s the right person to be writing an introduction to a work about the vast expanses of the Archpelago, given that, as he says, “I have never stepped off the island [of my birth], and I expect never to do so before I die.” (p. 1).

But something is not quite right, here. We meet Chaster Kammeston again in the entries of the gazetteer itself; and, if we can believe what we read there, not only has he willingly left his home island several times, he is also dead – yet there he is, alive to write an introduction, apparently after the book has been compiled. Kammeston’s is just one story woven through The Islanders; other characters (many of them artists and thinkers of one kind or another) and events recur: the mime Commis is murdered in a theatre when a sheet of glass is dropped on him from above – but maybe the identity of his killer is not as cut-and-dried as it first appeared; Jordenn Yo travels the Archipelago, creating art installations by tunnelling through islands (presumably that’s what landed her in prison); we may never meet the painter Dryd Bathurst properly ‘in person’, as it were, but we hear enough about him to piece together an impression of who he is and what he might have done.

That last comment points towards a key aspect of The Islanders: namely, that its very structure forces us to construct its story (or stories) for ourselves. This is more than just a simple matter of chapters being arranged out of chronological order; as Adam Roberts notes, the novel itself can be seen as an archipelago, with each chapter an ‘island’ of narrative. Formally, Priest’s novel embodies something of what it suggests about island life:

Islands gave an underlying feeling of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be. (p. 281)

Individual entries within the book point at connections between themselves, without overtly having the sense of being linked that we would normally expect the chapters of a book to have. Priest leaves us to make the links ourselves; but, more than having to assemble a set of puzzle-pieces into a coherent picture, more than having an incomplete set of pieces and having to fill in the gaps, in The Islanders we can fill the gaps in many different ways, thereby imagining new connections. Is Character A also Character B? Could Place X be another name for Place Y, and what does that imply if so? Just as the Dream Archipelago is ultimately unmappable, so The Islanders refuses to be understood definitively. It’s a novel which challenges our conceptions of what a novel can tell.

I’m not sure that The Islanders is right up there with the best of Priest’s work for me – it doesn’t give the great shock to the imagination that The Affirmation, The Prestige, and The Separation do – but it’s no less an elegant construction for that. It lulls you in with the measured neutrality of its prose, and the familiar, non-specific modernity of its world; so that those occasions where the narration does break out of its gazetteer-like register, or a properly fantastical notion is introduced, are all the more effective. And, as a novel which embodies its concepts and concerns within its very foundations, The Islanders is a work of art.

Some other reviews of The Islanders: Niall Alexander for Strange Horizons; Ursula K. Le Guin for The Guardian.
Christopher Priest’s website

Coming up: the Slighjly Foxed Readers’ Day

This Saturday, I’ll be going to an event organised by Slightly Foxed, a quarterly journal whose contributors recommend beloved – and perhaps unjustly forgotten – books. They’re holding their first Readers’ Day this weekend, a day full of talks (and cake, and a prize draw…). It includes Penelope Lively and Sue Gee discussing how they use autobiography in their work; a talk by a wood-engraver on illustration; sessions on George Mackay Brown, Graham Greene, women in the Second World War… It is fair to say that a lot of what will be covered is not my usual reading matter; but I’m a great believer in stepping outside one’s reading comfort zone, so I am looking forward to it.

There were still a few tickets available for the Readers’ Day as of this morning – more details here on the Slightly Foxed website.

Reggie Oliver, ‘A Child’s Problem’ (2011)

Oliver takes as his inspiration for this story Richard Dadd’s painting, The Child’s Problem; he imagines a possible origin for that artwork in the childhood of Sir George St Maur, a social reformer who (says the tale’s preface) visited Dadd in Broadmoor throughout the 1850s (I’ve been unable to find any reference to St Maur online, so am unsure whether he’s a genuine historical figure, or Oliver’s creation).

Nine-year-old George goes to live in his uncle Augustus’s country house, to be tutored until he is ready for Eton. Augustus is a strange figure, forever with a problem set up on his chessboard, but unwilling to actually have a game; he sets challenges for George, but gets angry when the boy completes them – and strange figures can be glimpsed through the windows of the house.

Stylistically, Oliver’s story is closer to the classic supernatural tale than is generally my taste, but the logic underlying what happens is handed very effectively: revealed enough to allow one to formulate an understanding, but also hidden enough that it remains mysterious and creepy.

Rating: ***½

Three Pieces: Granta 117 – Horror

Today, I’m trying out a different approach to blogging about an anthology, by concentrating on three particular pieces from it. The anthology in question is the Autumn 2011 issue of Granta, whose theme is ‘Horror’. It was my first time reading all three of these authors; I’ll go through their work in the order in which it appears in the anthology.

Will Self, ‘False Blood’

This is an account of how Self was diagnosed with and treated for polycythemia vera, a condition which causes the blood to thicken through the overproduction of red blood cells. It’s a very frank piece: Self writes matter-of-factly about his past of drug-use – neither apologising not seeking to justify it, but simply treating it as something that happened – and how it left him afraid of needles, which made his treatment (by having excess blood extracted) all the more difficult.

The horror of ‘False Blood’ seems to me to lie less in the mechanics of Self’s illness and treatment (though there is certainly some of that, and you may well find yourself picturing the blood flowing – or otherwise – through your own veins) than in something more existential. Self reflects on death and disease, and how we dress them up in metaphors in the vain hope of making them more palatable – and comes to the conclusion that it’s better to confront those phenomena without metaphors. But Self acknowledges that disease has been one of the key metaphors he has deployed in his fiction.

So, just as the very blood-flow which sustains Self’s life is now threatening it, so a cornerstone of his life’s work has gained a chillingly personal resonance. Perhaps the true horror of this piece comes from the thought of being betrayed by the most familiar and trusted of things.

Rajesh Parameswaran, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’

A tiger wakes up one day (“the worst and most amazing day of my life,” p. 167) and realises that he feels love – the love that comes from a deep friendship – for his keeper, Kitch. But where is Kitch today? Ming is getting hungry and wants to see his keeper and friend. When Kitch finally arrives, he’s with another, rather nervous, member of zoo staff; the tiger’s friendly move towards Kitch scares the other man, so Kitch strikes Ming with his stick – and then it all goes wrong.

When I started reading ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, I thought Parameswaran’s decision to give the tiger such a fluent, human-like narrative voice was amusing but perhaps misjudged – surely that wasn’t how an animal would really think? But now I see that the voice was judged perfectly, because the affect of the story is founded on the tension between the measured, reasonable tone of the narration, and the way Ming’s animal instincts intrude upon it. It’s not just that the tiger tends to misinterpret the human characters’ behaviour; it’s also that the way he reacts and explains himself can be at odds (sometimes chillingly so) with what his voice lulls us into expecting. This story is extracted from Parameswaran’s forthcoming collection, I Am an Executioner, to which I now look forward eagerly.

Julie Otsuka, ‘Diem Perdidi’

Diem perdidi is Latin for “I have lost the day”, which sums up what has happened to the woman with dementia who is at the heart of this story. The text consists mainly of declarative statements about what the woman does and doesn’t remember (sometimes addressed directly to the woman’s daughter – though neither character is ever named). With what might seem to be a rather restricted palette, Otsuka paints vividly what has passed in the lives of the woman and her family; and what is now being lost, the little cruelties of (and those caused by) being able to remember the relatively distant past, and long-held routines, but not what happened a few minutes before. Otsuka’s prose is dotted with poignant turns of phrase, such as: “She remembers that today is Sunday, which six days out of seven is not true” (p. 252). Clearly another writer whom I need to read further.

Granta magazine
Author websites: Will Self; Julie Otsuka.
Read an abridged version of ‘False Blood’ on the Guardian website.
Additional content on the Granta site.

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