Nina Allan prefaces this re-issue of her 2011 science-fiction novel, The Silver Wind, with thoughts about material she has inserted back into the book which didn’t seem to fit the first time around, and this nicely queues you up for the kind of treat her novel turns out to be. The Silver Wind is discordant, tricky, eerie and almost entirely non-linear, all in the right ways.
Even giving a broad description of Allan’s fairly short, not much longer than a novella work, is a slippery proposition. Ostensibly the story revolves around brother and sister Martin and Dora Newland, who find themselves embroiled in the mystery of a man named Owen Andrews, a watchmaker who has found a way to control the flow of time. To say anymore feels churlish and unfair to the sweep of Allan’s book which is unusually structured in order to pay off the inter-connectivity of what are, effectively, short stories tethered together by an ever-developing thread concerning time travel.
We might as well get that one out of the way given the novel is science-fiction. Time travel is a factor.
If you go into this expecting Back to the Future, however, you may come away disappointed.
Allan’s book cleaves closer perhaps to something like The Time Traveller’s Wife or even shades of Outlander, but without the obvious and direct romantic overtones. The Silver Wind *is* a romantic book, very romantic in places, but the romanticism is more about time itself, and persists throughout the tale with an uncanny sense of loneliness, loss and mournful inevitability. Much of the book involves death, or the long shadow of death, pervading the lives of a multitude of characters around Martin and Dora.
The Silver Wind always wants to keep you uncertain of your surroundings. You never quite know where you are in time as Allan remains intentionally vague about dates, her writing and description helping you to gauge a rough estimate as to whether we’re in the 1920’s or the 1950’s or the modern day, but ultimately everything feels strangely timeless. It perhaps only becomes timely, in one sense, when Allan portrays a fairly modern, nationalist dystopia in which innocent victims of time travel experimentation are indiscriminately slaughtered by the state when they threaten to expose the truth. This whole strand is an incidental aspect, however, of Martin’s personal journey, the background detail, so it never gets in the way.
Allan is excellent at using the discordant, non-linear structure to her advantage. She balances numerous characters, beyond principally Martin, with a deftness that keeps you invested even when time seems to be morphing and shifting around the narrative as you’re reading. The characters remains solid constants with believable, understandable motivations, even when mysteries abound – who is the strange ‘Circus Man’, a mysterious weird dwarf on the sea front they keep seeing? Just what did Owen Andrews invent? These are key questions in a narrative where the answers are seldom the point, as Allan’s true goal is to illuminate the transient nature of life and love with the amorphous curtain of time as her backdrop.
It all adds up to a frequently beautiful and haunting piece of work which is equally unafraid to tackle some challenging, taboo subjects along the way – one filled out here with brand new segments including short stories ‘Darkroom’ and ‘Ten Days’ which form part of the tapestry of this universe. A little like The Matrix, no one can tell you precisely what The Silver Wind is – you have to read it for yourself.
The Silver Wind is now available from Titan Books.