The Silver Wind by Nina Allan – review

This is not a book I would have come across myself. I read it as a result of it being the subject of one of my favourite podcasts, The Writer and the Critic, this month (February 2012). And my experience of reading it reinforces my belief in the benefits of stretching my reading circle – it was fantastic.

I try not to put spoilers in my reviews, and this review is no exception. However, I would say that reading this book completely fresh with no pre-conceptions at all was a very intriguing experience (I didn’t even read the back cover). I would recommend approaching the collection in that kind of innocent state, and even the brief descriptions I give here might be considered too much. Consider yourself warned!

There are four connected longer stories in the collection, followed by a shorter fifth story in the form of an afterword. The collection is based around an extremely interesting central idea of time and time travel. It explores this theme in lots of different forms, from timepieces (watches, clocks etc) through to different time streams and alternate realities.

In the first story in the collection, Time’s Chariot, we meet Martin Newland, a young man coping with the loss of a loved one and the depressingly slow disintegration of his family. There are almost no fantastical elements to this short story at all – it explores characters, renders geography beautifully and has a fantastic feel to the way Martin’s passion for time and watch making is ignited, but there isn’t anything I could really call strongly supernatural. But I almost came to think of this story as a control story – the “normal” one that I would compare the increasingly strange events throughout the rest of the collection to.

The second story, My Brother’s Keeper, slowly reveals to also be from Martin Newland’s perspective, but this is a younger Newland in an entirely different setting. Details of the world are different and there is a much stronger supernatural element, with ghosts and seeming magic abounding, all seen through the accepting eyes of the child version of Martin. Characters have the same names as the original story but have radically different relationships. Reading the first two stories back to back gives a sense of disconnection, of drifting away from the “real” world to somewhere more fantastic.

In the third story, The Silver Wind, Martin Newland again narrates for us, but this time in an older incarnation (still relatively young). The world is recognisably different, and I got more of a science fiction feel from it as we start to get a more scientific alternate universe explanations to describe the differences. Character relationships have again changed, with former siblings now friends, some characters dead, new characters introduced.

In the fourth story, Rewind, the narration splits between Martin again (this time a much older version) and Miranda, his tentative love interest. In this story, the reader has the benefit of knowledge gained from the first three stories and the story has almost the feel of a mystery or puzzle, as you wait for the characters to start putting the pieces together.

Jumping around not only between different alternate realities, but also to different stages of life of the different incarnations of Martin (from boy to middle aged man) also gave a better rounded sense of the core of the character (even though it was a slightly different version of Martin each time). This was true to a lesser extent to the other characters as well. It allowed the exploration of different facets of the characters, allowing you to see the answer to the question “if the circumstances of their life was different, in what ways would a person be different and what would remain the same”

While the four stories so far are mostly told from Martin Newland’s point of view, another character threads his way through all the stories – a somewhat mysterious genius dwarf named Andrew Owens (or Owen Andrews or the Circus Man) who seems to have much more knowledge than the other characters and seems to understand, at least partially, what is going on and how to navigate these alternate realities.

The fifth story, Timelines: An Afterword, was interesting. It was not told from Martin Newland’s point of view, indeed Martin does not show up at all. It seemed to be almost a meta story, with a slightly autobiographical feel as a writer navigates her own family issues and begins to envision a character, Andrew – a brilliant physicist about to make a startling discovery about time. The last part tells the beginning of Andrew’s story, a loop around to perhaps the events that kick off the other stories.

I had an interesting reaction to this last story. When I was a kid I loved the Narnia books and started, as I’m sure most people did, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and went on to read the later books in the series. It wasn’t until a long time later when someone bought me a complete set of the books that I realised that there was a prequel, The Magician’s Nephew, that set the scene for the books that followed but used different characters to the ones I was used to reading about. Placing Timelines as an afterword and breaking from the convention of using Martin as the protagonist gave me that same sense of looping back to the beginning of something I had thought complete.

I don’t think I would have got anywhere near the same experience from reading the stories separately. I found the most impact from the interplay between the stories, from comparing the details of the different realities and the different characters. They worked beautifully as a set, but interestingly I don’t think I would have given any of the individual stories on their own anywhere near as much praise. There is very little in the way of plot in each story, the concerns being explored are generally very personal to the characters. This kind of character driven/no plot doesn’t always appeal to me. However, I felt there was a meta-plot holding all the stories together, which made this book work very powerfully as a collection.

I found the writing style to be simple but powerful – grounded story telling that still left the reader enough space to try to piece together the differences in the worlds without having everything explained to the nth degree. I loved the description of timepieces throughout the stories – I’ve always found mechanical watches fascinating (although ironically I don’t actually wear a watch).

I wasn’t able to find an electronic copy of this book, so I ordered a paper copy online (I know – very early 2000s  of me). I must say the cover is beautiful and the book very well laid out.

Overall, I unexpectedly loved this collection and would recommend it strongly. Also, now I can listen to this month’s edition of The Writer and the Critic, so I’m doubly glad to be done!

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.


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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.