Review by Simon Marshall-Jones
It’s very difficult not to be enthusiastic about this book – not just about the writer and her stories but also about the physical book itself. And, it has to be said that, from this particular bibliophile’s point of view, what Tartarus Press have put together here is nothing short of superb and fully justifies the asking price. Sourdough and Other Stories is a lushly-produced hardback, with clear printing and a silk ribbon marker, and includes a full-colour frontispiece and decorated boards and spine – just the perfect thing to display on a shelf. It’s the sort of thing to stroke and make a complete fetish of.
But it wouldn’t be a complete package without the quality of literature within – otherwise it would be nothing more than mere distraction. Luckily, there are gems hidden between those beautifully-gilded covers. I’ve reviewed Angela Slatter before for Beyond Fiction (The Girl with No Hands – Ticonderoga Publications) and I came away highly impressed, both with the way in which she tells her stories but also by her erudition. The sixteen stories contained within this collection attests to both Slatter’s storytelling and her consistency in creating entertaining tales with deep, almost primeval, resonances. And she does this time after time.
The traditional fairytale is her starting point or, rather, what we have come to think of as fairytales. As I observed in my previous review, many of the most famous tales that have been handed down to us, transmitted by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, were corrupted and sanitised by a Christian, Victorian and patriarchal-oriented agenda, where women were often portrayed as not only being fallen but the begetter of evil deeds. The dangers were still there, but they were meant to show the child their rightful place, as well as to educate and prepare them for their roles in adult life, through moral instruction.
Here, Slatter tears those outdated notions apart, reaffirming and restoring the power of the feminine and the pagan. All her female characters display strength of one kind or another, whether it be a refusal to bow down to the dictates of the patriarchal stage on which these tales are played out (Gallowberries, for instance), or the willingness of a young girl to sacrifice herself to atone for a wrong or in a time of need (The Navigator, A Porcelain Soul), or the power of a woman to transform and renew (The Angel Wood, Little Radish). Conversely, the men in Slatter’s fictional locale of Lodellan are often portrayed as the epitome of stupidity: greedy (the Robber Bridegroom in The Story of Ink), cruel and warlike (the Duke and Dante Velatt in A Porcelain Soul), weak (the king in Sister, Sister) and ultimately afraid of the innate power of women, hence their need to subjugate them (the town council and judge in Gallowberries).
Before you imagine otherwise, not all the women are saintly, however – there’s Gwenllian, the rich mistress who asked Blodwen to heal her horrific burns, giving her young child away as payment for her services. Through Blodwen, we learn of the consequences of going against nature, of denying the bond every woman should have with her child and that doing so without thought can sometimes have dire consequences. Then we meet the cruel, spoilt little rich girl fiancée in Sourdough, who, through her arts with potions, causes her husband-to-be Peregrine’s true love to lose their child. That dead child then turns up in a later tale, Lavender & Lychgates, a wonderful story of the scheming ghost of the spoilt girl to bring him back to life, in order to exact revenge against Emmeline (his mother and the girl who did go on to marry Peregrine) and her daughter. Slatter’s women are also more than capable of a darker magic, too, as is evidenced in the bloody The Bones Remember Everything, a decidedly hallucinatory tale. Additionally, they can also be viciously poisonous, like Polly using malign whispers to usurp her sister Theodora’s place as the king’s wife in Sister, Sister.
Ultimately, however, the wrongs that are perpetrated by these bad apples are corrected by other, stronger (in the moral sense) females. Women are portrayed as the real runners of the show, the glue holding society together and the life-givers (and life-takers in dire need, too). They may be downtrodden, vilified, rejected and outcast, but each possesses an inner strength, an inner conviction to go on and do what’s absolutely necessary. Just like the fairy-tales we grew up with, the ones given to us by our Victorian forefathers, these stories deal in archetypes; however, the difference here is that Slatter’s characters are not the stiff, cardboard cut-outs created to make a moralistic point – they are eminently believable and well rounded, thus enabling us much more easily to identify with them and their plight(s).
On top of this, Slatter is also a master world-builder, but a very subtle one with it. The central conceit is that each of the stories is connected in some way to the story(ies) that have gone before – characters, places and events turn up or are reused in some way. The connections are fluid, however: several names turn up in different stories, for instance, but sometimes their link to the first instance is tenuous and yet the connection is most definitely there nonetheless. This fluidity creates a subtly strong weave that helps us build a picture of the world where the characters live their lives and have their being in. The language used to delineate and map it out it isn’t extraneous or richly detailed – it’s precise and economical, yet is highly effective for all that.
Despite the fact that it’s all set in a fairy-tale world, there is that about Slatter’s writing that ultimately connects it to the world we live in. These are real people, the kind of people we know ourselves: they’re just dressed up in the finery (or rags) of a world that’s just beyond this one. It just as surely reflects our reality as the original fairy-tales mirrored the times when Andersen and the Brothers Grimm collated the ones that have come down the years since. Slatter, then, isn’t so much reinventing these tales as realigning them, rearranging them in effect to better fit the 21st century and the collective sensibilities we hold today. The world has moved on considerably since the triumphalist days of Queen Victoria’s Glorious Empire (of which Slatter’s native Australia was a part), but those Victorian retellings haven’t: Slatter is merely fitting them around today’s values. Another Angela (Angela Carter), as Jeff VanDermeer points out in his afterword, started that whole process of updating, re-envisioning and restoring the fairy-tale to its rightful place in our richly-embroidered cultural tapestry, and with something of its original earthy power. Slatter has confidently taken up that gentle torch and illuminated her own path through what, in lesser hands, may be considered something of a minefield – and, in this reviewer’s opinion, long may she continue to do so.