The Bitterwood Bible
Sourdough and Other Stories by Angela Slatter has been on my radar for ages, but somehow I’ve just never got around to reading it. For a while I didn’t realise it was available as an ebook – and Tartarus Press does lovely hard copies, but they’re a leedle expensive for a book you’re taking a chance on. And I also wasn’t sure that these stories were ones that I would really connect with. I mean, yes, I loved “Brisneyland by Night” in Sprawl, and a few others Slatter has written – especially with Lisa L Hannett – and Midnight and Moonshine made me cry with its beauty, but… I just wasn’t sure. And then I found out that Slatter had a set of ‘prequel’ type stories coming out, so I thought I should read those first.
Halfway through reading The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, I finally bought myself Sourdough because there is no way I can now not read that collection. Because I am absolutely an Angela Slatter convert.
The stories collected here are not quite a mosaic in the same way that Midnight and Moonshine are. There, each story was clearly connected – most often by family, which made it seem a generational saga. Here, while there are a couple of stories that feature the same protagonist, a few more with recurring cameos, and most set in the same place or with the same background characters, it’s more like a series of stories set in a couple of distinct suburbs or small towns. Of course you’re going to get the same bars, or neighbourhood characters, or landmarks mentioned; that just makes sense. But the narratives themselves aren’t necessarily connected… although sometimes they are. And these locales that Slatter has invented are very believable. They’re well-realised, and they’re familiar in that fairy-tale sort of way. Because these are indeed a sort of fairy tale. There’s not a whole lot of magic; what there is is generally a quiet, dare I say domestic without it being in the slightest derogatory, magic; no flashiness or gaudiness here, no winning of wars. That would draw too much attention, and drawing attention in these stories is generally A Bad Thing. The women – and the protagonists are almost all women – mostly want to be left alone, to get on with their lives. Sometimes they’re forced to interact with the world, or with other people, that they’d rather not; because they need to achieve some specific goal, or because they’re being manipulated, or they otherwise have no choice. But you certainly get the feeling that most of them would just prefer never to be in the limelight, not to be a household name… not to stand out.
There are scribes and poisoners, seamstresses and pirates, teachers and coffin-makers and servants. They are mothers and daughters and child-free and orphan, young and old and neither; rural and urban, rich and poor. They have varying degrees of agency and control, varying chances of living after and of living happily ever after.
This is a wonderful collection of stories. They can and should be read and enjoyed separately; they can and should be read and enjoyed together, making a whole even greater than its parts. Oh, and Kathleen Jennings’ lovely little illustrations throughout are a delightful addition; I imagine they’re even more impressive in print, but electronically they’re still fine.
This review is part of the Australian Women’s Writers 2014 challenge.
L. Timmel Duchamp says that Love’s stories consist of “fairly plain words (and never very many of them),” in her introduction to this collection. That might sound like faint praise indeed, except that the rest of the introduction praises those same words’ “amazing, amusing magic” – and she’s right. It’s also why, when Alisa Krasnostein (of Twelfth Planet Press, who put this collection out – yes, fair dealing, she’s a friend) asked what I thought of it I had to pause, and think through my response. Which initially concerned her, I think, but my hesitation wasn’t about “how do I tell my friend I didn’t like the book?” but “how do I my feelings into words?” It was compounded by the fact that I read the collection in very fast time (two and a bit tram rides, to be exact) – it is only 80 pages long, in the cute little format that all of the Twelve Planets have come in.
So what did I think? Well, most of the stories feel pretty easy to read, thanks to that simplicity of prose Duchamp identifies and the fact that there’s no padding in any of them. Most of them, though, are likely to sneak around to the back of your head and whack you one to make you realise that simplicity of prose is by no means the same as simplicity of purpose, or theme, or consequence.
“Secret Lives of Books” has the most straightforward narrative structure of the stories here. Ritchie is dying, and his books have always been of far more importance to him than human relationships. So, simple: after death, go live with the books. In the books. But as he whispers to his ex-wife Luisa: Books suck your blood. How will they respond to this invasion, and how will they react when their existence might be threatened? And when they find out about the internet? … A simple narrative, yes, but a provocative probing into our relationship with books and with other people, and with the concept of knowledge. I read once a (mostly tongue-in-cheek) suggestion that humanity was the weapon grasses like wheat utilised in order to fight the trees. I was reminded of that, here.
True fact: I have never heard of Kiddofspeed. Turns out this is a real thing, a website where Elena Filatova discussed riding a motorbike through the area around Chernobyl, post-disaster. In “Kiddofspeed” Love does a glorious job of interrogating the question of fact v fiction, and especially the question/issue of how the internet makes the casual reader’s understanding of the line between these two things so much harder. If it’s on the internet it’s true, right? If I say it is? (I’m put in mind of this article suggesting/explaining that Tom Cruise did not, actually, jump like a mad thing on Oprah’s couch – well, not how most of us “remember” him doing so, anyway.) Love also has a dig at some of the wilder “theories” about Chernobyl, and shoots them down in very few, scathing, words.
A qasida is “a form of lyric poetry from Arabia about the pain of lost love” – at least so says the prologue to the story of the same story, and coming straight after “Kiddofspeed” there is part of me that pauses and wonders whether the entire collection might be playing some sort of grand didactic prank… but surely not. (Right?) This story flicks between Bronnie, living now and with the knowledge that Mars-obsessed Del is lost, and Livia Wynne – general fixer for the British Empire in its last gasp, after the First World War. I could completely spoil the narrative (Del is on Mars) and not spoil the story. I haven’t, promise. (And because it’s on the internet….) Relationships, the quest for knowledge, the (im)possibility of cross-cultural understanding, the drive to go, the complexity of language: all of these are touched on, lightly but generally profoundly.
“The Kairos Moment” is probably my least favourite story. I don’t dislike it, it just doesn’t work for me like the others. ‘Kairos’ is the Greek term (apparently… who me, paranoid?) for a moment of something wonderful happening. The narrator theorises that music is one method by which to achieve a kairos moment, and proceeds – as part of her research (I just realised I’m assuming it’s a her – I don’t think it’s revealed) – to try and create one. It’s not entirely straightforward, nor entirely a healthy experience for some.
The final story is
The slut and the universe
The relations between feminism, global warming, global financial meltdown,
asteroid impact, the nuclear arms race and the mass extinction of species.
How feminism got to be both the root of all evils and the means of salvation from them.
It opens with “One upon a time, there will be a young girl who live with her family in the middle of the woods.” Can you tell this is my favourite story? Marysa lives with her mother and her grandmother. They argue about the clothes she wears, with the word ‘slut’ bandied around – “Not that they mean Marysa is a slut… [but that she] has chosen to dress like a slut, and therefore… people she meets… will treat her like a slut and TAKE ADVANTAGE” (68). A condemnation of slut-shaming in a page of prose, hell yes. And then they get on to the patriarchy and all of the things suggested in the multiple titles. With Gaia along to stir up the conversation a bit. The narrative is tenuous, true; there are hints of a world that has gone bad (worse than ours at the moment anyway), and the relationships between the three generations. The focus is absolutely on conversation and argument between the four. It’s a place for Love to set up ideas and be provocative and maybe even extreme, and I loved it.
This collection is awesome. You should buy it.
It’s the exacting details in this book that means it has dated so dreadfully that for all it’s an interesting enough story, I just can’t imagine anyone born after about 1980 enjoying it. Except possibly for its historical value.
There are two plots entwined here: a ghost story, and a technology story. And they’re packaged with a family drama, just to give the main character another headache.
The ghost story aspect holds up, as one would expect, in that it’s not context-reliant; you could have the same story set in 1850 or 2050. Syb’s new house is always cold, and the new housekeeper Hille starts talking spooky things as soon as she moves in. Hille wears an amethyst and claims to see ghosts, or spirits, all over the place. Syb is dubious, but….
The technology aspect, though – oh, I giggled. This was published in 1997. Syb is really lucky because she has an email address and can dial up the internet with her modem any time she likes. She wins a competition and gets an internet camera. People are able to get hold of each other’s email addresses quite easily, there’s only a few websites to search for on any one topic, and hacking is a breeze. I have no doubt that Sussex was going for close-to-bleeding-edge experience with this story, and going for serious verisimilitude with the intricate details. But all of that means that it really hasn’t travelled well. Which is a shame, because Sussex does write well and engagingly.
The inside cover calls it a Children’s Book; it’s what I would consider the younger end of YA. Syb’s parents are going through a rough patch, and this is dealt with brusquely but (and?) sensibly. It’s a “this is not the end of the world” attitude, but not “this doesn’t matter.” Intriguingly given how many such novels get rid of the parents completely, Sussex does it a bit differently: the mum goes away but stays in contact via email; the dad is always a bit absent in his attitude but is always present and still relevant. Also, the romance interests are just barely present but more usually as an irritant than anything else.
This book was read as part of my read-all-the-books-I-own-but-haven’t-read effort, and conveniently also contributes to the Australian Women Writers challenge for 2014.
Midnight and Moonshine
This book. Oh, this book.
It took me a few months to read this collection, this mosaic novel. This is no reflection on the quality of the book. Well, actually it is, but not the way you might think. See, I’d read a story, and then I’d be forced to close the book, sigh, and stare into space in order to wallow in the beauty of the prose. And then I’d have to go read something else, because (like with me and Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love series) sometimes too much beauty is painful and you need a break.
First off, look at that cover. Is she not glorious? are the colours not soothing and enticing? Created by the awesome Kathleen Jennings (who chronicles the saga of its production on her blog), I would absolutely have this on my wall. LOVE.
Angela Slatter and Lisa L Hannett created the contents. Writers who collaborate are even more of a mystery to me than authors who work alone, and to produce this sort of magic has to be just that – occult somehow. And they haven’t been content to just a straightforward story. Instead, as suggested above, this could be seen as a collection or a mosaic novel. A collection because it is made up of short stories that can basically stand by themselves. You could take one and put it in an anthology and it would still work ok. However – and here’s a metaphor I’m very pleased with – that’s like taking a candle out of a chandelier. Yes, it still sheds light. But when you put it with its fellow candles and they’re ringed with crystal, the whole effect is so much more just a few candles in one place. These thirteen stories, read together and in sequence (and wrapped in that art), are far more than the sum of their parts. Together, they create a history of an entire people: their origins, their interactions with humanity, their crises and triumphs, and the ongoing impact of a few families and their heirlooms. Thus, a mosaic novel – there is continuity, but it’s thematic and genetic; there’s only one character appears in or influences lots of the stories. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Edward Rutherford (London, Sarum) and James A Michener (The Source) following multiple generations in one place in order to fictively illustrate local history. Slatter and Hannett do just that… with magic. And Norse gods. Same amount of revenge though.
The premise, as set out in “Seeds,” is of Odin’s raven Munin (memory, here called Mymnir) surviving Ragnarok and setting out for Vinland (thought to be somewhere on the north-eastern corner of North America) with a few followers. Once she gets there, she creates an enclave and peoples it with servants, and sets out to rule it I guess like she learned from the Aesir she’s observed for however many centuries. Of course this does not go entirely well either for her or for her people. There’s love and betrayal, selflessness and vindictiveness; people get beaten up, rescued, married off, wooed… and some people even manage to make their own destinies. My estimate is that the stories take place over roughly a millennium, but that’s based entirely on the fact that that’s about how long ago it’s posited that Vikings did historically head off for Vinland and settle for a short span. The early stories take place in a sort of timeless, medieval-ish zone; from memory there are no dates in the first seven stories, and it feels like that sort of myth/fantasy where time itself is important but recording it is less so. Then, with “Midnight,” suddenly the external world exists and thrusts itself onto this dreamy place. From then on, time is relentless, and within 5 or 6 stories it’s the modern world. This development works mostly because although the stories do stand alone, there is continuity within families. Sometimes the names give them away, sometimes it’s an heirloom appearing, occasionally a reference to a past event. This often means that rather than having to struggle for a new emotional connection every time, the reader can build on the investment already made in the character’s family, from an earlier story. It’s the same reason Rutherford and Michener’s works can be successful.
And on top of all of this, the sheer beauty of the prose. I do not have the words to explain how delightful the words in this book are. It just all works.
Did I mention it’s an Australian production? Produced by Ticonderoga, in Perth.
You can get Midnight and Moonshine over at Fishpond. (Although it does ship from a US supplier.)