Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press 2011)

I have a thing for fairytales. From the day I was given the complete works of Hans Christian Andersen at age six, they have always held a particularly special place in my library.
Distant lands, talking animals, terrible families, brave and clever children, evil monsters and ugly witches: what’s not to love?

Even now, as a somewhat grown-up type person, I find myself drawn to the strange little worlds within. As I got older, intricacies and complexities of the form, previously lost on my childhood self started to emerge. I began to appreciate the poetic and lyrical style of the form, the inherent complexities of the choices characters made and that all bargains, however small, have steep and unforeseen consequences.It’s no surprise then that I fell madly in bookish love with Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories. Set in the magical and strange world surrounding the city of Lodellan, all the creatures that terrified and thrilled me as a child – therianthropes, changelings, witches – exist alongside a new host of wonders and terrors: dolls with souls, babies crafted from dough, and living ghosts.

Slatter is consumed with changing forms, disguised intentions, selves within selves and subverting expectation. Nothing is ever what it seems. And that faint recognition, and subsequent subversion, creates an unsettling but ultimately enthralling read. Slatter’s story telling is lyrical and elegiac, her opening lines hook you in one sentence (‘My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did’ is my favourite), the characters are complex, the narratives compelling.

But it's more than just a collection of fairytales and here is where Sourdough distinguishes itself. While each tale stands adequately alone, a complete journey, each new narrative complements and progresses the last, adding layers of back story and character, and completing a bigger picture of this strange and fantastic world.
To single out one story would be to unravel a delicate tapestry. The bittersweet closing story ‘Under the Mountain’ would be not be as fulfilling without all that precedes it. This interconnectedness is an exercise in memory, requiring a level of attention and recollection usually reserved for epic multi-narrative fantasy, not the short form of fairytales, and is both challenging and engaging. At times I found it distracting – skipping through, trying to find where that character had previously appeared – but overall the structure creates a
compelling mosaic of characters and narrative.

Sourdough appeals to that great fairytale tradition that speaks to my six-year-old self, and I have no doubt I’ll be returning to Lodellan again and again.

Previously published in WQ magazine - 1 May 2012


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