Nina is a long-time friend of this blog, and one of the authors I’ve written about most often – but never quite at this length. It was a pleasure to spend time thinking through The Dollmaker: on the surface, the novel is about a maker and collector of dolls paying a surprise visit to a correspondent, but it also explores how lives lived beside each other can be as distant as parallel worlds.
(This review appears in issue 280 (Summer 2015) of Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA.)
Steve Haynes (ed.), The Best British Fantasy 2014
Laird Barron and Michael Kelly (eds.), Year’s Best Weird Fiction: Volume One (2014)
A review of this nature should set out its stall, so here goes: I believe that, in a fantasy story – especially one worthy of the ‘best of’ label – the fantasy should be intrinsic to what the story is doing. I also want it to be earning its keep; I don’t want stories that feel as though they’re trying to gain effect by appealing to a sense of nostalgia or fondness for a particular idea. Hopefully this will give you a sense of where I’m coming from as I look at these two Year’s Best anthologies.
Let’s turn first to Salt’s Best British Fantasy 2014 (whose remit incorporates science fiction). Some of its fourteen stories are decent enough but lacking that extra spark. ‘Cat World’ by Georgina Bruce tells of two sisters who live on the streets, their only escape being the odd stick of Doctor Rain’s Travel Gum, which takes them away to the titular, friendlier place. But, when one sister goes missing, the other finds the world more dangerous than ever. Bruce’s story is reflective of pressing real-life concerns; and the convincingly child-like narrative voice does work. The problem is that the fantasy elements are scarcely necessary, and ‘Cat World’ reads much like many a familiar literary realist story along similar lines. Likewise, Carole Johnston’s ‘Ad Astra’ sees a couple’s relationship tested when they go into space; it’s okay, but ultimately there’s no need for the story to be set in space.
Still, better this approach than that taken by David Turnbull’s ‘Aspects of Aries’, a series of snapshots from a future where social divisions have formed along astrological lines. It doesn’t convince either as something that might actually happen or as a sandbox future for satire. Turnbull’s story seems mostly geared towards delivering the weak (and pretty distasteful) pun in its last line. I read stories like these three and think: fantasy and SF can do so much more than mimic the strategies of polite realist fiction and facilitate bad jokes.
Thankfully, there are some pieces in the anthology which do show some of fantasy’s potential. ‘Saga’s Children’ by E.J. Swift is narrated collectively by the children of Saga Wärmedal, a celebrated space adventurer whom they never knew and who called them all together to meet her on Ceres. Swift captures the sense of her characters living in their mother’s impossibly long shadow, their lives manipulated by forces beyond their comprehension. ‘Saga’s Children’ works most of all because its grand gestures mirror its larger-than-life canvas.
Elsewhere, ‘Zero Hours’, Tim Maughan’s tale of young people bidding online to undertake zero-hour contracts, eschews metaphor, ending up as the story that feels most engaged with present and future. The protagonist of Nina Allan’s ‘Higher Up’ grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and now has premonitions of a similar event involving her pilot husband; the fragmented structure blurs reality and fantasy to cutting effect. I’m glad to see stories like these in The Best British Fantasy 2014 and they make the anthology worth reading; I just wish there were more of them.
Now to the first Year’s Best Weird Fiction, whose rotating editorship promises an ever-shifting view of a field which, inaugural editor Laird Barron’s introduction acknowledges, can be “nebulous.” There are twenty-two stories here, with a variety of approaches – and varying degrees of success. ‘The Nineteenth Step’ by Simon Strantzas begins promisingly, as a couple move into a dilapidated house whose staircase appears to have an extra, invisible, step. But the story ends just this side of ‘it was all a dream’; and the glimpse of a hidden world isn’t enough to earn that.
Anna Taborska’s ‘The Girl in the Blue Coat’ takes us to Poland, where the spirit of a young girl may have lived on beyond the horrors of the Nazi occupation. There’s scope here for an eerie experience of doubt: the core tale is told at several layers of remove, through the sceptical eyes of journalists and other researchers. But the sense of possibility never quite comes to life.
In ‘Moonstruck’ by Karin Tidbeck, young Alia’s mother Vera is consumed with a fascination for astronomy, so much so that her skin becomes patterned with grey patches of what she insists is regolith. When the moon begins to move towards the Earth, Vera’s condition only grows more acute; meanwhile, Alia is going through her own transformation, as she has her first period. Tidbeck creates a striking parallel between mother, daughter and moon, but still leaves space for a strangeness greater than the three.
Many of the stories reference older writers and forms, sometimes with a sense of leaning too heavily on them for effect but on other occasions able to build on those foundations. Scott Nicolay’s ‘Eyes Exchange Bank’ has characters discussing Poe, and its own share of amorphous figures and sinister buildings – but there’s a rawness to the telling which aligns that iconography with the contemporary setting of a small town beset by economic hardship, to which the protagonist has returned. In ‘Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us?’, Damien Angelica Walters takes the obsession of a classic weird fiction narrator and transfers it to a bereaved character who could not let their partner go, creating an effective portrait of someone struggling to move on.
I couldn’t help but wonder on finishing this anthology: what would a 21st Century weird fiction, built from the ground up, be like? I’m not sure that I really saw it here, and perhaps it is the wrong question to ask; perhaps riffing off the past is simply in the nature of weird fiction. Future volumes of Year’s Best Weird Fiction will help to answer that; for now – despite my reservations – there are some stories here which are worth exploring.
Nina Allan, The Race (2014)
Nina Allan is one of my favourite contemporary short story writers; but, as her collections often take on interesting larger shapes, I’ve often wondered what a novel by her would be like. Well, now here’s The Race, and it may just be the best thing Allan has written yet.
We begin in the company of Jenna, who lives in Sapphire, a small southern English town whose main (and pretty much sole) reason for existence is the racing of genetically-enhanced ‘smartdogs’. Jenna makes gloves for the smartdogs’ human runners, which is one of the few bright spots in her life. And her brother Del is pinning his hopes on one last smartdog race, which may yet steer his life in a better direction.
There are some indications that this isn’t the future of our world, but essentially The Race seems fairly straightforward – until we reach the second part and meet Christy, who certainly lives in a recognisable contemporary England, and is the ‘author’ of what we’ve just been reading. Christy has a dodgy brother named Derek, and the temptation is right there to map her life on to Jenna’s, even though it doesn’t quite fit. A third part jumps forward twenty years to a lover of Derek’s partner, and challenges key assumptions from Christy’s narrative. The fourth and final part returns to Jenna’s world, and Del’s grown-up daughter Maree, who was kidnapped as a child… but all may not be as it seems.
The Race is a novel of thwarted lives and limiting horizons: chances are missed, landscapes are washed out, knowledge is incomplete. This is also reflected in the book’s structure and language: its individual parts are integral to each other, yet don’t quite cohere. And rarely come across a novel so finely calibrated to the different weights of realist and science-fictional prose: when Maree’s section includes place names like ‘Thalia’ and ‘Crimond’, their effect is very precisely estranging – just as the world seems to be opening up, so it fades back into obscurity. The Race may end in incompleteness, but its sense lingers on.
Agota Kristof, The Notebook (1986)
Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan (1989)
Twin brothers are sent from the Big Town to the Little Town to live with their grandmother. With the local school closed, they teach themselves at home: having been given a title, one of the boys will write an account of something that happened to them; the other will check it with a dictionary, and determine whether it is ‘Good’ or ‘Not good’. The criteria for doing this seem simple enough: “the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do” (p. 27).
Of course, it’s not that simple; and the reason is right there in that quotation: everything we read is mediated through the boys’ viewpoint – and it’s a viewpoint that distorts a world we may otherwise expect to recognise. The boys eschew words that describe feelings, dismissing them as too vague. They even eschew feelings, undertaking a series of exercises to harden themselves, leading to escalating acts of cruelty – all told in the twins’ direct, matter-of-fact tone. Never again will I use an expression like ‘spare prose’ without thinking; the writing in The Notebook is so austere that it hurts.
Agota Kristof (1935-2011) was a Hungarian writer who became an exile in Switzerland at the age of 21; there, she learned French, which became the language in which she wrote her novels. The Notebook was her first, at least partly inspired by her childhood memories of Nazi-occupied Hungary. But all the geographical and temporal markers are stripped away from the brothers’ world, in sharp contrast to the precision of how they narrate events. The end result is a nightmarish timelessness that’s very hard to shake off. Kristof wrote two more books featuring the twins, which I’m sure I will go on to read one day. But The Notebook is complete in itself, ending in just the right place, ending on an image which is simple and stark, yet – in its own way – impossible to imagine.
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.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)
A combination of very recent UK publication (the end of March) and continued acclaim (most recently the Pultizer) means that this book has appeared quite suddenly on my radar; and, when I came to read it, I knew that it had been highly regarded, but not really what it was about. Now that I’ve finished it, I think A Visit From the Goon Squad is worth reading, but can’t see that it’s so excellent as to deserve all the plaudits.
The focus of Egan’s novel is a cluster of characters centred on a music mogul named Bennie Salazar, and his assistant Sasha. I say a ‘cluster’ because each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, at a different point in time, and we’ll see particular characters only in certain chapters (sometimes centrally, sometimes tangentially). The main theme is time (the ‘goon squad’ of the title), and how its passing changes people and crushes their dreams (‘I don’t know what happened to me,’ says one character to Bennie. ‘You grew up, Alex,’ he replies, ‘just like the rest of us’). The non-linear structure is particularly effective at showing this: without the imposition of the usual chronological order, one is encouraged to consider different stages of characters’ lives at the same time, as it were.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is also written in a multiplicity of styles; and, in general, those styles work well (even at their most unusual, such as a chapter in the form of Powerpoint slides). But I finished the novel that it didn’t have that extra spark that would life it out of the ‘good’ bracket and into the ‘great’.
Link: Jennifer Egan’s website.
Shireen Jilla, Exiled (2011)
Anna Weitzman is happy with her life in New York, married to Jessie, a British diplomat. But then a series of misunderstandings and minor incidents draws into question Anna’s ability as a mother to her young son Joshua, and the boy is placed under the guardianship of Jessie’s American stepmother Nancy, a wealthy socialite. As the life Anna knew begins to unravel, she becomes convinced that Nancy is behind it all.
What Shireen Jilla does particularly well in Exiled is create the unsettling sense of life slipping out of one’s control, as Anna struggles to navigate the increasingly treacherous waters in which she finds herself without really understanding how she got there. The great contrast between the world of New York and Anna’s old life in rural Kent is vividly drawn (for example, when Josh takes head-lice into his private school, what would have been accepted as a routine occurrence back in England now requires a specialist company to come in and treat her entire apartment). One feels Anna’s disorientation as she tries to understand the social forces working against her.
I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the ending, which unpicks the knots of uncertainty and confusion that have been created; but I guess it’s part of the nature of the story Jilla is telling that that must happen. Whatever, Exiled is well worth a read for the journey, and a fine debut for Shireen Jilla.
Nina Allan, ‘The Silver Wind’ (2011)
A new novella (published in issue 233 of Interzone) from a writer who always seems to have a refreshing take on the fantastic;‘The Silver Wind’ is no exception to that, as it takes some well-worn ideas and images and fashions them into something quite distinctive.
In a UK under the harsh rule of a nationalist dictatorship, Martin is a London estate agent who hears about Owen Andrews, a clockmaker who allegedly worked with the army on experiments involving time travel. Martin goes to see Andrews, thinking (or so he tells himself) that he might be able to find out how to avert the accidental death of his wife Miranda. But really he wants to know about Andrews, and discovers firstly that it’s not ‘time travel’ as such which is possible, but travel into different versions of reality; and secondly, that research into this phenomenon is ongoing, in a nearby military hospital. Martin goes out into the overgrown woods of Shooter’s Hill, is found by soldiers, and taken to that very hospital…
What is most striking to me about ‘The Silver Wind’ is the way that Allan roots even her most outlandish imaginings firmly in quotidian reality. The societal changes of the background are sketched in believably, and anchored by Allan’s very specific sense of place. Against this background, more preposterous concepts like time travel, and even archetypal images from fantasy and fairytale (such as the forest haunted by monsters – here occupied by escaped subjects from the hospital, who have been twisted by the experiments), become plausible because they are so firmly placed in context.
‘The Silver Wind’ is a very down-to-earth treatment of a theme that one might expect to be handled in precisely the opposite way (I haven’t really discussed the plotting, which is also strikingly low-key). One gains a sense of Allan as a writer firmly in command of her material and doing her own thing, which is a very exciting sense.
I’ve heard great things about Nina Allan’s fiction, but (as far as I’m aware) this is the first of her stories that I’ve read — and all those great things I’ve heard were correct.
In the world of this story, a process has been developed called the ‘Kushnev drain’ which alters human physiology to allow those who undergo it to travel through space, though they are changed fundamentaly as a result. Anita Schleif is making a film about female ‘fliers’, and in particular her friend Rachel Alvin. That’s the background, but the tale is less concerned with space travel than about the difficulties of dealing with profound personal change.
Anita is very fond of Rachel, and secretly distressed at the prospect of losing her friend, even though Rachel is fulfilling her ambition; the film is at least as much an attempt by Anita to hold on to her friend as it is a product of genuine interest in the subject. Allan also sets up some neat parallels that give the story a satisfying cohesion: Rachel’s single-minded determination to become a flier is not so different from Anita’s desire to keep Rachel in her life however she can; and the transformation through which Rachel is going is analogous to the mental decline of Anita’s grandmother — both involve the loss of a human self as conventionally understood; so Anita is effectively seeing the two most important people in her life disappear before her eyes, albeit in very different ways.
‘Flying in the Face of God’ is a superb piece of fiction, and you can be sure that I’ll be looking out for more of Nina Allan’s stories in the future.
This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.