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.