The Silver Wind by Nina Allan

Reviewed by Sofia Samatar

The Silver Wind cover

Nina Allan's The Silver Wind is a collection of linked stories. Subtitled "Four Stories of Time Disrupted," it's actually five stories—the last one is much shorter than the others, and described as an afterword, though it shares the philosophical subtext and shifting cast of characters of the book as a whole. It might be more accurate to describe the people of The Silver Wind as a cast of names, rather than a cast of characters per se: though some minor figures maintain an identity throughout the book, most of the characters holding the names change from story to story. Dora, for example, is Martin's beloved sister in the first story and merely his friend in the third. In the first she's a major character, the focus of Martin's passion and heartbreak; in the third she disappears from the action after handing him some helpful papers.

This may sound confusing, but it isn't. During the transition between the first two stories, "Time's Chariot" and "My Brother's Keeper," the nature of Allan's project becomes clear. "Time's Chariot" ends with Martin's loss of his sister Dora, while the narrator of "My Brother's Keeper" tells us that he's lost a brother, not a sister. So when the second narrator turns out to be called Martin just like the first one, and to have, like the first one, an Uncle Henry and aunts called Myra and Judith, there's no temptation to look for a direct link between the two Martins. Without his helpless and guilt-laden obsession with Dora, Martin is a different Martin. The second story is not a new phase of his life, but a different universe.

Different—and yet the same. There are enough parallels between the stories to keep them from drifting too far apart. All of them are about time: time machines, time travel, time lost, time regained (though not repeated) and, of course, time disrupted. A watch-making dwarf makes appearances throughout the book: in "Time's Chariot" he's a sinister beach bum Dora calls "The Circus Man"; in "My Brother's Keeper," which revolves around Martin's discovery that he is adopted, the Circus Man returns, but is given the name of Andrew Owen. "The Silver Wind" is a dystopian tale set in a London controlled by a racist government, and here again Andrew Owen turns up, except now his name his Owen Andrews, and he's a genius of "time-bridge technology." In "Rewind," he's Andrew Owen, the Circus Man, once more. In "Timelines: an Afterword" his name is split in two: "Andrew" is the name of a character in a story written by the protagonist; "Owens" is the maker of Andrew's watch.

This means that The Silver Wind as a whole is quite different from the sum of its parts. The first three stories were published previously, but they cannot have been read separately in the same way that they are read together, with their uncanny resonances. It would be like reading a single one of the twelve novels that make up Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time: you might enjoy the story, but without reading more of the books you wouldn't understand Powell's use of repetition, coincidence, and change. Allan uses these devices too, but instead of constructing a sweeping narrative in which all the pieces fit together, she presents pieces that can't be put together at all—though their colors and shapes are designed to make you think that, just possibly, they can.

The result is a book about missed opportunities, broken connections, and loss. The music of Allan's time is decidedly melancholy. In the title story, Martin seeks out the "time-bridge" inventor Owen Andrews, hoping to reunite with his wife Miranda, who died in a car crash. Andrews squashes Martin's hopes of beating death through time travel flat: time is not like a thread, Andrews explains, but "an amorphous mass, a rag bag if you like, the rag bag of history" (p. 74). Andrews goes on:

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 she . . . It would be like that feeling you get when you meet someone at a party and can't remember their name. You know you know them from somewhere, but you can't for the life of you think where from. (pp. 74-5)

That's a fairly accurate description of what the reader of The Silver Wind can expect: a sense of knowing the characters as the book progresses, but not knowing where from, and not knowing how those characters fit into each new reality. This has positive and negative effects. On the positive side, there's the little shiver of recognition when names and characters reappear, a sense of hidden depths, of palimpsestic layering. As Tricia Sullivan writes in the book's introduction: "The stories haunt one another" (p. 11).

On the negative side, it's hard to tell how deep that layering goes. If Martin—the most consistent major character—is always a new Martin, does he really gain with each reappearance? Does his passion for Dora in "Time's Chariot" intensify, or influence in any way, his passion for Dora in "Rewind"? The danger of Allan's experiment is that emotional force is more likely to be lost than gained in the leaps between parallel realities. I would argue that the haunting which happens between the stories is less powerful than the haunting Martin suffers in "Time's Chariot," when the dead Dora calls to him from the street. She's cold, as the dead often are, and tells him she's lost her key. It's a moment of joy for Martin, but one he cannot keep:

Dorothy means gift of God. In that moment of seeing her again I loved her more fiercely and tenderly than in all the years leading up to it. I understood completely what love meant.

I ran downstairs and opened the door. The night air brushed against my face, warm and soft and redolent with the perfumes of dried nettles and frying onions. There was a car at the kerb, a blue Citroen. The street was empty. (p. 33)

The story ends a few lines later. Moving into the next story, "My Brother's Keeper," I had trouble warming to the characters, knowing that the new Martin was not my Martin, the one I had loved and suffered with in "Time's Chariot." With each new story, this emotional distance increased, which may explain why the first piece, "Time's Chariot," remains most vivid in my memory. The longer stories, "The Silver Wind" and "Rewind," which allow for a fuller engagement with the new universes, also make more of an impact than the shorter "My Brother's Keeper" and especially the final piece, "Timelines: An Afterword."

The emotional distance created with the appearance of each new Martin may be a deliberate effect. If not deliberate, it may be unavoidable, a necessary outcome of Allan's project—the reflection, in the reader's psyche, of the disjunctions that make up the structure of the book. Tricia Sullivan praises the harmony of form and content in The Silver Wind in her introduction, calling it "a perfect little book about imperfection" (p. 12), and its imperfect emotional quality is arguably the result of its achievement in performing, rather than merely describing, the subject of loss. The impossibility of going back in time is reaffirmed with each new story, and no Proustian petite madeleine provides a conduit to the past. As readers, we lose Martin over and over again, just as he loses Dora. By the afterword, he's gone altogether.

This may be a statement on a philosophical level, but it's one that can only be made by sacrificing, to some extent, the reader's engagement with the book. There is certainly intellectual pleasure to be found in reading "Timelines: An Afterword," especially in the suggestion that fictional universes may be as valid as material ones (what writer or reader worthy of the name doesn't want to hear that?). Still, in terms of emotional resonance, the conclusion of "Timelines," and therefore of The Silver Wind as a whole, is less satisfying than the end of "Rewind," in which Miranda—not Martin's dead wife now, but his new girlfriend—miraculously starts up a broken watch.

"Rewind" is the first story in which a character named Miranda takes center stage, and she evokes sympathy as Martin did in the first story. The reanimated watch mirrors Miranda herself, whose monotonous and lonely life has just been transformed by her love affair with Martin. Partly because Miranda is new and not a repetition, this symbolism succeeds on both intellectual and emotional levels. It's a moment of sheer optimism which seems, in the context of the book, particularly brave. For this reason I wish, despite the merits of "Timelines: An Afterword," and at the risk of ending a book about loss on too upbeat a note, that Allan had chosen to end with "Rewind," and the magical instant when time is restored to a broken instrument. "For a moment time seemed to hesitate," Allan writes, "the minutest of gasps, a silently indrawn breath as if at the sight of something wonderful. Then, all by itself, the world started turning again" (p. 137).


Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books, the Arabic language, and other wonders at http://sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.