Sourdough and Other Stories
By Angela Slatter
Tartarus Press, August 2010
They have elements of fairy tale and fantasy, myth and horror, do the 16 interrelated stories in this stupendous collection.
All the stories are set in an imagined world that has the city of Lodellan at its centre, with woods, forests and mountains all around. It is a compelling and convincing world, and one that Brueghel or even Bosch would have been familiar with, being both grim and Grimm.
Several characters recur throughout, so that altogether the stories make up a mosaic or a tapestry. In the first, a dark enchanting concoction called ‘The Shadow Tree’, we meet Ella, a nanny who abducts children to pay her return fare to a netherworld from whence she was exiled, and we learn from one of her happier charges in ‘The Bones Remember Everything’. Perhaps also the king here is the twice-born son to be seen in ‘Little Radish’, a radical retelling of the Rapunzel story. The unfortunate suitor in the second story, ‘Gallowberries’ (fruits that ‘grow lush and glossy, uniformly round and enticing’ yet taste ‘of rotting flesh and spent seed’), turns up as a half-wolf familiar in ‘Sister, Sister’. And you can trace the fate of Jessamyn, and of her mother and son, through quite a number of stories. As well, a certain Murcianus, the author of various esoteric tomes – and the sound of whose name may give a clue as to his nature – is often alluded to.
Just why these stories work quite so well is difficult to fully discern, but I’d say it is because amid the witches, the corrupt clergy, the trolls, the robber bridegrooms, the werewolves and other shape-shifters – in other words, the characters and personages that make this world so exciting and intriguing to live in, at least in the imagination and for an hour or two at a shot – they are about things that really matter. One case in point is ‘Under the Mountain’, the story of Magdalene, a young woman who risks her life to rescue her mother Theodora from the kingdom of trolls. Once among the trolls, though, they recognise her as one of their own and she realises that she was a cuckoo child; they, the trolls, are her own people. And she must look on as the woman who, all her life, she had believed to be her mother rejects her utterly:
I look at Theodora, drink in her pain, her distaste and her hatred. See how my transformation has washed away every trace of affection. All the love she poured into me, all the care she took, the protection she gave, all were for nought. The knowledge that she was too late to save her own child so long ago, that she already sheltered a thing, will weigh on her forever, I think. She will not return for me this time. I am no longer hers. I never was. (231)
Clearly, a story that is in part about becoming yourself, though that be different or even alien to your parents; the meanings don’t need labouring. Except to say that you can also read this story – and another one, by name of ‘Lost Things’ – as a skit on Orpheus and Eurydice.
Betrayal is a theme that surfaces often, showing its various facets. In ‘Dibblespin’, a troll tests her half-sister’s love and finds it wanting; in ‘The Navigator’ a young woman (the niece of the aforementioned suitor in ‘Gallowberries’, though you have to work it out) has committed an unforgivable act of betrayal and, as a kind of redemption, she colludes in her own sacrifice. So too the aged witch in ‘Ash’, who’d used a child as a bartering chip. Sure the twist at the end of this story shows you one of the laws of this world, the way it works. And the killer detail in ‘The Shadow Tree’ – the queen’s complicityin her child’s fate – is maybe the most treacherous act of all.
Another story I liked very much was ‘Angel Wood’, though perhaps that’s because I recognized the revamped borrowings from The Golden Bough.
These stories are stupendously good and offer many distinct pleasures: a strange yet superbly realised world, compelling characters and, above all, beautiful prose that has the power to move. One of those characters mentions of her lover’s failings that ‘he could not realize how all women are, in one way or another, “her kind” [i.e. a witch], even his dear departed mother.’ And that could be a coda for the book. Sympathy for the witch, indeed.
Further details of the book can be devoured here.
Angela Slatter’s website is here.
And Stephen J. Clark’s book covers are well worth a considered look.