‘Sourdough and Other Stories’ by Angela Slatter

3 11 2010

 


'Sourdough and Other Stories' by Angela Slatter, 238+viiipp, Tartarus Press, ISBN: 978-1-905784-25-7, £30 hb

 

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Here, Slatter tears those outdated notions apart, reaffirming and restoring the power of the feminine and the pagan.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.

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‘The Girl with No Hands’ by Angela Slatter

5 09 2010

'The Girl with No Hands' by Angela Slatter, 210pp, Ticonderoga Publications, ISBN: 978-0-9806288-7-6 (ltd. hc)/978-0-9806200-8-3 (pbk), $75AU/$25AU

[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]

Angela Slatter writes fairy-tales for adults, but not just any fairy-tales. They are not just ribald retellings, or tales which have been subverted merely for the sake of it. No, Ms Slatter delves much deeper than that, pile-driving her way to the core of the traditional fairy-tale, the type that we know so well courtesy of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. As Jack Dann notes in his introduction (Caressing with Razors), many of these ‘traditional’ tales were themselves subverted to fit a patriarchal agenda, to shape the gender roles so beloved of the society prevailing at the time. Times have changed, but more often than not those traditional tales haven’t, and they are retold countless times preserving the original intent of the ‘retellers’.

In The Girl with No Hands, Slatter hauls some familiar tropes, willingly or not, into the 21st century. Her women, for instance, no longer bow to the patriarchal ‘head of the family’, the type of man who insists on carving the roast every Sunday and presiding at the top of the table. Instead, the females are liberated in every sense; mentally, psychologically and sexually. They know themselves and they know exactly what it is they want. Like the young girl in Red Skein, a riff on Little Red Riding Hood, who not only knows she’s different, but positively revels in that very difference from the others of her village. She isn’t afraid to show those around her exactly who she is, and also why her mother is wrong in attempting to stifle it. Then there’s the woman in The Little Match Girl, stoically unrepentant and in the end deciding her own fate, irrespective of the one handed down to her by male authority.

Power, and freedom, is vested in the hands of women to take control of their own lives, a point wonderfully made in the absolutely beautifully-wrought The Living Book. The female narrator is, quite literally, just that; a living book, with words flashing across her skin for all to read. She is made, ultimately, through nothing more than the pride of a male creator, (a point which can be read on so many different levels), and the denouément comes as the result of absorbing the ethics and ideas of the modern world. The female writer in Words knowingly has both power and freedom as well, a point she forcefully makes when her neighbours and compatriots cause her grief for expressing herself and wilfully defying the conventions and diktat of so-called ‘societal norms’.

Many of the men in Slatter’s stories appear weak, greedy and very flawed. Davide in Bluebeard is one such; he desires Lilly’s mother greatly, but there’s more than a hint he also desires the child’s flesh just as much as her mother’s. The same can be said of Master Justin De Freitas in Dresses, Three, inappropriately desiring above all else his beautiful niece Aurora. Then there’s the greedy, avaricious king looking to refill his impoverished coffers in Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope, a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, as well as the titular character being much nastier and sleazier than the original fairy-tale.

So far (and I put my hand up here willingly), what I have written appears to paint Ms. Slatter in a very heavy-handed feminist light. This is very far from the truth. There are good men here, as well as bad women. In The Girl with No Hands, although the girl’s father is depicted in a less than flattering way, the king is the very opposite, and is the epitome of the kindly, doting husband and father. Even the kingly character in the Rumpelstiltskin retelling becomes a model man once his fortunes have been restored. In Skin, the shortest and quite possibly the finest tale on offer here, the human husband of the Selkie girl is the most loving man that any woman can want. Slatter is also well aware that women are human, and therefore subject to the same species of frailties and evils as all people are. Not all of them are heroines; the mother in Frozen, who leaves her little son to freeze to death outside the bingo hall where she’s enjoying herself, is anything but. Neither is the Second Wife in The Juniper Tree, whose weakness is jealousy and whose subsequent companion is regret.

What I am trying to get at here, is the raw humanity of the panoply of people who live in Slatter’s tales. These are real people, with real emotions and real desires, real strengths and real weaknesses: a microcosm of the real world. Thus, whoever they are and however they behave, we empathise with them fully, both the good and the bad. Slatter has distilled that humanity into beautifully-written and brightly poetic tales, stories that sing out and resonate with our own experiences of the Big, Bad World. In the same fashion that the fairy-tales originally collected and reworked by Andersen and Joseph & Wilhelm Grimm closely mirrored the type of society and world they moved in, so do Slatter’s updated retellings reflect the world as it is now.

Above all, these stories sparkle and shine. It would have been far too easy to produce pastiches of traditional fairy-stories, just in order to put a point across. Slatter wants to redress the imbalances of the older iterations of the tales, and she succeeds in doing so by weaving her words with subtlety and finesse, rather than by being blunt. Just like, in fact, the originals defined the roles of children and gender without being explicit. This is what happens when these primal and powerful archetypes in prose are freed from the constraints of a world-view that no longer holds true. Their true power as purveyors of basic truths cannot be denied. More to the point here, Slatter has done so admirably, achieving a marriage that partners wonder with the prevailing zeitgeist of the early 21st century. On that basis alone, I heartily recommend that this book be sought out and digested – Slatter’s star is surely rising and it would be a shame to miss out on the celestial spectacle.