Those of you who read my reviews religiously (come on, I know you're out there) will remember that Nina Allan's contribution was one of the few stories I liked in Subtle Edens, Allan Ashley's slipstream anthology. I was also recently impressed by "Time's Chariot", her runner-up entry to the British Science Fiction Association's 50th anniversary short story competition. So it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I opened A Thread of Truth, her debut short story collection. Anticipation because she is clearly a highly gifted writer. Trepidation because so far everything I have read by Allan has been in a similar, and exacting, style which requires considerable investment on the part of the reader.
A Thread of Truth is a slim volume (just over 200 pages of large type) containing seven stories (only two of which have been previously published) and the titular novella (also new). Over the course of these stories both my hopes and fears were realised.
"Ryman's Suitcase" can be taken as an archetypal Allan story. A doctor moves from London to take up a locum position in a small village. The previous holder of the position (Ryman) has moved to Zaire following the revelation of his wife's infidelity. He has left behind a collection of medical curiosities including a trepanning drill. His wife, Sonya, has since disappeared, leaving behind their daughter, Billy. The doctor—our nameless narrator—begins to fall in love with a photo of Sonya. At the same time he starts to suspect that Billy has been trepanned. The story ends with him opening Ryman's suitcase and discovering a cryptic collection of objects.
This is typical in many ways. It focuses on failed, grudging and inexplicable relationships. It takes a keen interest in geography (rural, urban, and liminal). Observations—even considering the narrator's profession—are often precise and clinical:
"She was wearing a loud, aldehyde-based perfume, overlaid with the scents of powder and base foundation." (p. 52)
Above all it is a story that suggests rather than insists. Unusually Allan provides an brief afterword which briefly addresses each story but those in search of easy explication are likely to be disappointed. For example:
I dreamed about 'The Vicar with Seven Rigs'—the title anyway. I forced myself awake to write it down and then fell asleep again. By the morning the dream itself—so vivid while I was experiencing it—was reduced to a vague shimmer of uncomfortable sensations and dissolving images (p. 241)
This intangible explanation—"uncomfortable sensations and dissolving images"—mirrors the story itself, and the ineffable burns throughout the collection. Another notable feature is that any fantastic elements are extremely muted, to the point where you could argue whether Strange Horizons is really the right venue to review the collection. Only "Bird Songs at Eventide" represents something from a departure from this by being set on another planet. In fact, it was only after reading the first page that I realised I'd already read the story several years previously in Interzone. (It was also shortlisted for a BSFA Award in 2006, and it is worth noting that the most superficially conventional of her stories was the most feted.) The lack of recognition was understandable because at first blush it is a very atypical story for Allan: a small group of scientists are studying an alien race that look like metallic dragons. However, once past first impressions it really isn't that different at all. The story itself can be summed up by one heartbreaking passage:
They had packed very little because Stevie had insisted that would be best. He had taken the disc of photographs out of her hand.
"It's a new beginning, Izzie, like being born again," he had said. "There won't be any use for the past." That was before the flight, before he had seen Sophie Pellow. There were times now when Isabel longed so fiercely for a photograph that she wondered if longing alone might not be sufficient to restore one. (pp. 61-2)
Isabel mutedly studies the dragons until the creatures, previously thought to be flightless, take wing and disappear. The scientists watch passively, the story ends. Ignoring the set dressing, the story unfolds just as you would expect having read any of the preceding stories. And this is something of a problem.
In a recent Strange Horizons review of another debut short story collection Abigail Nussbaum wrote:
There's a logical progression that shapes the early careers of many genre writers. It goes: write short stories, submit to genre magazines, get published, get nominated for a couple of awards, get some name recognition, publish a collection. Whether the author in question goes on to concentrate on novels or stays in the realm of short fiction, their debut collection is a glimpse at the early development of their voice and favorite subjects, and as such will inevitably include journeyman works, experiments in style, and thematic dead ends, alongside the more accomplished examples of their unique contribution to the field.
Allan has followed this progression and although she dodges some of the issues Nussbaum mentions—her style has emerged remarkably well-formed—I still half wish that she had not published A Thread Of Truth. It is too soon, the work is too under-developed, she is sketching again and again towards something that she is not quite able to express. Even the titular novella is only longer rather than deeper. "A Thread Of Truth" allows Allan to go into greater incidental detail around the theme providing background colour—in this case spiders—but by using the club story formula to embed another cryptic story of loss within this, all she achieves is to make her frame more ornate. That these stories are in many ways all the same story isn't necessarily a problem; if you've ever waded through the collected stories of, say, JG Ballard, or Philip K Dick, or M John Harrison you will know that there can be much profit in repeatedly ploughing the same furrow. In a debut collection rather than a retrospective one, however, this is more of a weakness.
At the start of her afterword Allan notes that one of her strengths comes from "adopting the habit—perhaps I was born with it—of being attuned to the particular rather than the general". (p. 239) I agree and examples of this crop up again and again:
"Her lashes were pale like her eyebrows, soft clumps of almost colourless hair that reminded him of the thistledown that got stuck in the hedges at the back of the allotments." (p. 133)
"It rested against the pale skin of her cheeks, the same dirty yellow as the froth on cups of coffee, the bitter, grainy coffee from the canteen urn." (p. 158)
That last comes from 'Heroes', perhaps the best execution of her recurring archetype. Some of its impact is deadened by what has preceded it though.
Allan has is an alluring style but—as I feared before opening these pages—the cumulative effect is perhaps less than each individual palette-cleansing burst. So read these stories, but don't read them all in one go, and all the time look forward to what is to come.