Filler content with broken walls

Just heard today that Nina Allan’s novella Spin has been nominated for a BSFA Award, so it seems appropriate to post this feature on her work that originally appeared in Black Static #36:-

WHEN THE FOURTH WALL IS BROKEN: NINA ALLAN

A bright new star in the firmament of genre literature and one of the few writers to have appeared in all three TTA publications, Nina Allan’s work will be familiar to readers of Black Static, and 2013 is shaping up to be a significant year for her, with the appearance of three new titles, including the novella Spin (TTA Press pb, 94pp, £6 – see advert elsewhere in this issue).

For obvious reasons I can’t review Spin, but there are no such pernickety moral quibbles when it comes to telling you how brilliant MICROCOSMOS (NewCon Press hb/Kindle, 175pp, £19.99/£3.35) is, albeit a pinch of salt to flavour might not go amiss on the part of the more sceptical reader, given that three of the stories previously appeared in Black Static and Interzone. The fifth volume in the publisher’s Imaginings series, intended to ‘feature the work of a single selected author, bringing together the very best of that author’s previously published but uncollected short fiction, as chosen by the author themselves, plus original stories’, Microcosmos opens with a foreword by Allan in which she talks about the genesis of the book and gives us some of the history behind the individual stories, including snippets of biographical material.

Title story ‘Microcosmos’ is set in a grim future where resources are scarce. The child Melodie travels with her family to visit loner Ballantine, who apparently had some sort of relationship with her aunt, something frowned on by Melodie’s mother. The story is fraught with ambiguity, so that we can never really know what is going on, exactly how these characters fit together, the power dynamics of the group, and what the position of their society is, and yet this lack of anything concrete makes it all the more effective. We scan the pages, interrogate the dialogue in search of hints as to what is taking place, pause to wonder if, perhaps, Melodie is Ballantine’s child, and find omens of our own future in Allan’s depiction of the world, the terrible thing made anodyne as seen through the eyes of a child, but unsettling for the reader.

A similar dystopian feel informs ‘The Phoney War’, in which we have another society teetering on the edge, with the rumours of aliens somehow the catalyst that causes it all to fall apart. The story’s protagonist Nicky is the wife of a man who photographs people with deformities, selling them to the papers as human/alien hybrids, a macabre touch of detail that in passing addresses the tabloid love of sensationalism. Nicky travels through a blighted landscape to Dungeness in search of a friend she lost touch with many years ago, but what becomes obvious is that she is trying to put her own ghosts to rest, and though she looks down on the suspicions of others she is equally vulnerable to talk of alien intrusion, the story a pitch perfect evocation of troubled times and troubled psyches, one mirroring the other, while at the same time tying in to all the modern concerns we have, and the scapegoating of others, with aliens as a possible metaphor for immigrants, the outsider perceived as threat.

‘Chaconne’ was written for a tribute volume to the Russian writer Bulgakov, but lacking any familiarity with his work I found that it put me very much in mind of Pan’s Labyrinth, the same feel of the fantastic overlapping with the mundane, the outré as counterpoint to the horror at times attendant upon simply living. The story is set in the aftermath of World War II and told from the viewpoint of Alena, who has no idea if her soldier husband Orest is still alive. As we bear witness to her attempts to survive through a bitterly cold Russian winter, with frostbite bringing her career as a pianist to an end, a picture emerges of her relationship to the writer Bulgakov, showing how her life intertwines with that of his fiction. This culminates in a meeting with a cat that transforms into a devil, and offers her a bargain that Alena rejects. Redolent with the magic of fairy stories and a knowing awareness of their fabulist nature, ‘Chaconne’ is an enchanting story, one rich in detail and atmosphere, the weirdness of the narrative juxtaposed with the protagonist’s love for music and the Russian classics, so that in trying to understand Bulgakov, Alena comes better to understand herself.

In ‘A. H.’ Maura learns that her grandmother once knew Adolf Hitler. Doubtful at first, she delves into history and thinks that this might be true, opening up the possibility that if her grandmother had acted differently World War II might have been averted, the story hinting at the plasticity of reality and identity, and showing how the young can learn from the old, a personal drama with major implications. ‘Orinoco’ is the story of Marie, still grieving five years after her boyfriend died in a bomb attack, and finding some comfort with a new man her brother Brian brings home from work one night. But reality is not what we see, and by diving so deep into fiction Marie has lost her compass, the bomber becoming conflated with his victim, and her own life gone topsy turvy. The angelfish of the title, trapped within the confines of their aquarium and blissfully unaware of the limitations placed on them, seem to be a metaphor for Marie’s own situation in a story shot through with understanding and compassion for the plight of those who will use any method to make sense of their lives, even to embracing a lie if it will enable them to continue to function.

‘Flying in the Face of God’ is another story with a science fiction rationale, Rachel accepting the Kushnev drain that will turn her into a flier and make her acceptable for space travel, while friend Anita tries to make sense of what she can only see as a form of abandonment, mirroring the loss of her mother in a bomb attack. The story is keenly felt and moving, with beautiful characterisation, a convincing setting and a compelling picture of people trying to make sense of their changing world, the ties that bind even as they tear us away from each other. Lastly we have ‘Higher Up’, to my mind the most experimental story in the collection. It gives us the first person account of Laine, who as a ten year old is affected by 9/11 to the point that she is fascinated by air tragedies but never wishes to fly, and who has premonitions that her pilot husband will be involved in a similar act of terrorism. A fascinating story that deftly merges fact and fiction, it uses the historical backdrop to tell a very personal story inspired by the events of 9/11, a tale of fear elevated into obsession, but at the same time shining a light on the nature of such events and trying to put them into some greater perspective. It was a superb story, the perfect end to a brilliant collection.

The latest release from Allan, STARDUST (PS Publishing hb, 287pp, £11.99) is #11 in the PS Showcase series, and before going any further I should mention that there is also available a signed, jacketed hardcover edition limited to 100 copies and retailing at £24.99. The book follows the schemata Allan used in her earlier work The Silver Wind, with stories that stand alone but cumulatively form some whole greater than the sum of their parts, a collage novel if you will, and as far as that goes the clue is in the sub-title of the collection, ‘The Ruby Castle Stories’. A film star whose career ended when she murdered her lover, Ruby Castle is a tangential figure in the lives of nearly all the protagonists of these stories.

After an introduction by Robert Shearman, followed by a verse from a poem about Ruby Castle, the collection proper kicks off with ‘B-Side’, the story of Michael, who is remarkable both for his abilities as a chess player and his obsession with the films of Ruby Castle, in particular her horror genre work. Michael must deal with his first loss at a chess tournament and the prospect of his mentor Lennox dying of cancer, as well as an attack by two bullies. But something else is going on, with soundtracks and characters from Castle’s oeuvre spilling over into Michael’s life, and at the end he receives a gift that teaches him chess really isn’t that important, that focusing on it to the exclusion of practically everything else will totally undermine whatever chance he has for happiness and a fully rounded life. Each word chosen with care, this is a story that will linger in the consciousness long after the reading is done, with hints in the text of something marvellous taking place, of reality as mutable, dreams overlapping life, mundane matters such as illness and bullying thrown into perspective by the suggestion of some higher purpose.

The only story to be previously published, ‘The Lammas Worm’ pre-dates the events in ‘B-Side’ and is set in the world of the travelling carnival, with a rundown outfit taking in a strange young girl, who shows talent under the big top but whose history and unusual physiology suggest something not quite human. There are echoes of Browning’s Freaks in the relationship between ‘siren’ Leonie Pickering and the dwarf Piet, but the story is told from the viewpoint of knife thrower Marek, a man who has grown tired of the travelling life, so that the story offers a eulogy for the carnival circuit at the same time as it gives us a more conventional horror piece, one with unsettling imagery and the sense of something truly disturbing lurking behind the scenery of the story. Ruby Castle puts in a personal appearance as the woman Marek throws his knives at, announcing her intention to leave and seek her fortune on the stage (and our knowledge, from the previous story, of how that all turned out for her adds a note of bittersweet irony to the moment).

The best novella that I’ve read so far this year, ‘The Gateway’ ranges far and wide in time and space, with Andrew attending the bedside of his estranged and dying German friend Thomas, and remembering the circumstances of an affair he had with the man’s wife against the background of the Nazi rise to power, events that culminated in the disappearance of Thomas’ daughter Claudia in a mirror maze at a carnival to which Andrew took her. Thomas believes that the mirror maze was built by the Gelb brothers, manufacturers of funhouses and regarding whom a certain mystique has developed, including a link to the family of Ruby Castle, and he gives Andrew a letter that details his research into their background, including a visit to the Gelbs’ hometown where a concentration camp was sited, and in doing so he provides Andrew with the key that unlocks his own experience all those years ago. This is a tale that is as close to perfection as it gets, one that interweaves different story strands and events with a deft skill and presents us with larger than life characters and endless possibilities. Allan is superb in depicting the throes of an irresistible passion, a love that makes us act badly, and the desperation and loss that drive people into the arms of others. The suggestion of something terrible taking place with the rise of the Nazis, culminating in the horrors of the concentration camp, are chillingly delineated on the page, the understated, just business as usual nature of it all adding to the sense of revulsion we experience as we read with the benefit of hindsight. And there is also something of the miraculous, seen in the possibilities afforded by the Gelbs’ creations and the hope that Claudia found happiness and Andrew redemption of a kind.

‘Laburnums’ is the story of wannabe poet Christine, who is haunted by the ghost of Amma, a friend who went missing in childhood, and in love with older poet Matthew Cleverly, whose most famous work concerns the film star Ruby Castle. There is a rite of passage feel to the work, with the protagonist committing to both her poetic vocation and the man she loves, deciding to walk away from her old life and the demanding mother who holds her back, to ‘disappear’ in her own way. Title story ‘Stardust’ is set in Russia in 2029 (and references Kushnev from ‘Flying in the Face of God’ above), with a family gathering round the television to watch the launch of the Anastasia, only the rocket explodes killing all the astronauts. And while this is taking place grandmother Sophie Pepusch is being murdered by her ex-lover, the two events melding into each other, personal and societal tragedies playing out while a Ruby Castle movie is broadcast on the television. The story is told from the viewpoint of young Alina, who wishes to be a writer and records events in her journal, and subsequently she encounters clues that not everything may have been as it appeared, the story raising questions about the nature of reality and our interpretation of events. And yet while these concerns are woven into the text, the real joy of the piece lies in Allan’s depiction of the Russian setting, her tellingly detailed creation of a large, extended family with all its carefully quantified relationships, and the young mind struggling to make some sort of sense out of all these things.

‘Wreck of the Julia’ is the story of Vernon, who is still grieving after the death of his wife Eloise in a plane crash. He purchases a painting called Wreck of the Julia and gets involved with the niece of the artist, Clarissa, or Charlie as she likes to be known. They travel to the Canary Islands to investigate the story of the shipwreck that inspired the painting; stranded overnight on a mountain they are unable to save a young girl from a monster, one that is heard but never seen. Returning home Vernon must settle certain matters before he can move on with Charlie. Totally absorbing, this is a story that leaves its horrors in the shadows, while a love of art and disparate people trying to connect with each other take centre stage, the eternal attempt to find some light to hold up against the darkness, be it through love or creativity, and though she is never mentioned by name, Ruby Castle is the presiding spirit of the work, as with all these stories. Finally she comes into her own with ‘Red Queen’, ostensibly a poem by Matthew Cleverly celebrating his muse, and perhaps the string that ties it all together.

And then there is the greater story, the one that Allan didn’t write but left us to piece together for ourselves from the clues she planted in the text, a story that will be different for every reader (as every story is different), its ultimate shape dependent on personal experience and preference as to what we see when we read this book, what stares back at us from between the bars of the various narratives, what connections hold significance. Is the device that Michael receives at the end of ‘B-Side’ a creation of the Gelb brothers, and does it matter that one of the chess players is a dwarf (there are dwarves in two of the other stories, and Matthew Cleverly’s second poetry collection is titled Canetti’s Dwarf)? The Ruby Castle film American Star has a ship that ‘ran aground off the island where the monsters were’, as does the Julia in the penultimate piece of the puzzle. Four passengers disappear, as do four astronauts, but one of the passengers resurfaces as Michael’s grandmother, while Vernon photographed Alina’s grandmother when she was a ballerina. Eloise in ‘Wreck’ is involved with Matthew Cleverly’s son Mark, and several stories end with phone calls made. And so on and so forth, a snake endlessly swallowing its own tail as characters recur and events mirror each other, while the mind of the reader struggles to take it all in and make the connections, create our own narrative in which to fit the material, as does Alina in the title story, as do all the characters in their own way.

Stardust contains Allan’s best work to date, is a book in which the intellect and emotions perfectly complement each other, one that makes us both think and feel, and if there’s any justice it will be in contention for numerous awards.

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