Angela Slatter has, along with her regular partner in fiction Lisa L Hannett, been one of those authors I have collected yet never really got around to reading due to the reviewing pile taking precedence over the personal reading pile. Sure, I have read single stories on occasion, enough to know that the money I have put down on her other collections is well spent. The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings from Tartarus, is then the first collection that I have read in its entirety. It’s also possibly the first mosaic novel that I have read.
It works well, both as a collection of separate stories and as collected narrative. One of things that is hard to do within in a short story and which our best writers often achieve, is creating that sense of a wider realised secondary world within a small word count.
What I think the mosaic format allows Slatter to do is give herself some wiggle room for story and style and let the layering effect of drip fed world details in each separate tale slowly envelope the reader to give us that realised world That isn’t to say that Slatter isn’t doing a grand job of combining style, story and detail within each tale but that structurally the envelope of the mosaic helps in some cases to accentuate the impact of certain stories, while at the same time containing deviations is form and style in others.
In Terrible as an Army with Banners, Slatter crafts an effective piece of epistolary fiction. It’s distinct from many of the stories in the collection in terms of tone and style but works equally well in maintaining a sense of increasing dread and darkness. Likewise The Maiden in the Ice meshed together horror elements that reminded me of The Ring with a a clever riff on a well known folktale.
For a while she tries to keep her eyes firmly fixed on her destination, on the silver-ash clump of sedge not so far—yet so very far—away. But the panic she’s tamped down hard gets the better of her, and she looks to the sparkling, treacherous ground upon which she moves, seeking the cracks, the veins, the fissures that are surely forming there.
But what she sees is something entirely different.
An oval face; skin sallow—in the sun it will become olive; dark-flecked, large eyes; thick straight brows; an unbalanced mouth, the top lip thin, the bottom full; and hair as black as Rikke has ever seen. Black as nightmares, black as a cunning woman’s cat, black as the water she is trying to escape. Older than Rikke, caught between girl and woman, and suspended in the solid lake as if she’s a statue, standing; head titled back, one arm reaching up, the other pointing downward.
from The Maiden in the Ice.
The Bitterwood Bible is a neat package that has allowed Slatter to explore, examine and re-imagine the fairy/folktale milieu. There’s a balance achieved here too; I never felt that I needed to rush through the stories to the larger resolution. I was able to enjoy each of the tales as a separate entity and I suspect that were I to reread it as Lisa Hannett suggests in the afterword and focus more on the connections between each story, I would have another equally pleasant and slightly different experience.
I am left feeling the beneficiary of sumptuous and stylish storytelling, Slatter, I suspect is at her best here.
This book was supplied by Tartarus Press.
Disclaimer: I am a Judge for this years Aurealis Awards and some of the stories contained in this volume are eligible. Hence my review only comments on those not eligible and on how the collection works as a mosaic novel.
This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.