Monday, October 6, 2014

Review of "Spin" by Nina Allan

One spear in the onslaught of fantasy currently storming the market is the re-visioning of world myths and legends.  From long to short form, stories from our collective past are now fair game—with political agendas and without, quality and otherwise.  After an affecting experience visiting Greece, Nina Allan re-visioned the Arachne myth and wrote a fine novella, “Spin”, in 2013.  A fantasy story set in a near-future version of the country, it’s an example of literature that makes the phenomenon viable.

“Spin” is the story of Layla, a gifted young weaver who leaves her poor home in the countryside of Greece for life in Atoll City (a futuristic veneer for Athens).  Her mother executed when she was young for political subversion, Layla’s uncanny talents as a weaver leave her exposed to a similar fate if she is not careful—the regime mindful of unnatural talent that might upset their control.  Life in the big city troublesome, both socially and personally, Layla struggles within herself to find the source of her craft, as well as meet the demands of those around her, particularly a family that asks her to heal their terminally ill son.  Layla eventually finds peace within herself, but in a manner that only hints at the original Greek myth.

If not the conclusion, then the strongest quality of “Spin” is its prose.  Elegant through the transitions, lucid in dialogue and stream of thought, and at all other times lush and sensual to the point of tactility, the narrative is polished to high shine.  The street-side descriptions of Atoll City, the tapestries Layla creates, her inner monologue, and the experiences she has with other are spellbinding. 

If there are any issues about Spin, it may be its occasional airs.  Layla’s talents as a weaver not enough (nor the subsequent space for sub-text), Allan adds a layer of overt literary and poetic discussion that is intended to fill out the artistic agenda—the theme of creativity, as it were.  The works of specific poets and the idea of poetry discussed in less than subtle tones, the narrative occasionally veers into pretention, per the following example:

“I’ve always felt safer with pictures, with colours,” she said. “When you make an image it’s just that: an image, and an image is only what you make of it. People can say what they like about it, but they can’t really accuse you of anything. Words are different. Words are so final, somehow. Once you’ve said them you can’t take them back. You’re stuck with them forever. And people can use them against you any time they like.”

Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but words can be just as subjective as images, perhaps more so.  Poetry itself is among the most subjective forms of writing we have, not to mention perspectives on past conversation.  (At times, what was said in an argument can be argued about more than the subject of the actual argument.)  From the novella’s perspective, the overt discussion of poetry undermines the profundity of the discussion to some degree.  That being said, “Spin” is the story of a young woman for whom the discovery of such ideas may indeed be as effortless as presented.  I recall my own youth when the language of life seemed to be written in big letters, this criticism perhaps too harsh.

Regardless, “Spin” is a beautifully prosaic novella that tells of a young woman finding something within herself in a near-future vision of authoritarian Greece.  The conclusion a finely tuned transitory moment (and no, Layla doesn’t become a spider), the reader is left to think how it feeds back through her story, but more importantly to ponder its implications for her future.  Lila Garrot at Strange Horizons dislikes this aspect of the ending, but I find the slingshot an effective one wonderfully open to interpretation—just like the original, proving the revisioning of myths in modern fantasy can be done with relevancy.

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