In Nina Allan’s re-imagining of the Arachne myth, Layla, a weaver of extraordinary talent, leaves home to make her own way in life.
She heads to Atoll City in a modern alternate Greece, attracting the interest of an old lady along the way. The old lady informs Layla that she knew her mother, and of the gift the woman once possessed.
A gift that brought tragedy on Layla’s family.
A gift that Layla too possesses.
As a Classicist with a particular fascination with reception studies, all this novella needed to do to get my interest was have the phrase “re-imagining of the Arachne myth” on the back; I hadn’t read the blurb above until I searched for a proper blurb to go with this review, since Spin-the-publication only has critical praise on the back. Of course, that might be because no blurb could really do this little piece of beauty justice…
The centre of Spin is its aesthetic. I’m not used to visualising fiction intensely – falling into its world, yes, but falling into its colours less so; but Nina Allan slowly weaves her colourful, fully-throated beautiful and incredibly visual world around the reader slowly and clearly, with an undeniable and absolute power. The use and importance of colour is emphasised throughout but also subtly layered into the story; colour sets tone, atmosphere, scene, even character, and the vividness of Allan’s writing really makes that work. From the “lacquered craquelle green” of thorns to “dark skin lustrous as teak” this is an intensely visual piece of writing.
It also packs in an awful lot of character. Spin is eighty-odd pages, but into that slight length is packed more character and humanity than many novels; Allan handles, with a deft touch, Layla’s maturity and her growing understanding of herself and her role in the world; the development of her character from child to adult; and the sympathetic approach to her very definite, set materialistic worldview. That, of course, doesn’t mean Allan endorses that view, and indeed she undermines it, both through other characters – Alcander Crawe and Thanick Acampos especially – but also through the narrative itself; and in challenging Layla, Allan develops the rest of her characters into fully rounded beings, flaws and all, in the most interesting way.
Spin also holds the distinction of being set in an alternate-present(?) Greece; Carthage appears to have existed within a century of iPads, Rome to have fallen not within living memory but certainly not a millenium and a half ago, sibylls have existed and been outlawed in living memory, and more. The handling of this is really subtle, and grows as the novella continues; casual references build up into a more and more complete image of the Mediterranean world Allan has invented for Spin, and it’s a fascinating one, with the gods still the major religion and Christianity still only at cult status. As with Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas, there’s clearly a lot of thought about the alternate history of the world that’s not made it into the text, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Where Allan falls down is with her plot. Spin is sold as an Arachne-myth, but doesn’t quite do that; nor does it actually deliver a real plot, per se. Instead, we have a character study at a series of snapshots; events don’t quite join up, the chronology is unclear, certainly the timings of many of the events don’t seem to map onto each other. Treating this as a myth, of course, helps in many of these regards, as we don’t expect it of myth, but Spin is a little too grounded, a little too engaged with modern narratologies, to be a myth; so it hits some serious bumps for a reader, especially when read in a concentrated way.
In sum, Spin isn’t flawless – the plot is thin and rocky at best – but it is a beautiful piece of writing, both evocative and intensely coloured. I recommend it as a brilliant piece of character-writing.