Book Review: ‘Sourdough and Other Stories’ by Angela Slatter

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Image from NPR.org.

Image from NPR.org.

Readers can dive into a short story collection at any point in the book–unlike with novels, which are usually read from cover to cover.

Not so with Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories. You could read the 16 gems in this book in any order, but to get the full effect of her nesting doll-like structure, you must read them in the order they were presented. How else are you going to realize that some protagonists are descendants of others, or that they all cross paths at some point? Sourdough is not just a masterful collection–it’s a masterclass in how to curate stories for a collection.

Now, I have huge To Be Read piles (yes, piles) that aren’t getting any smaller despite my reading more books this year than the last two years put together, because:

  1. I am also a Book Hoarder, and
  2. Even though I profess my undying love and loyalty to print books, I have to admit that the next best thing to getting books that will not ship to my damn country are eBooks.

I was planning to read something else for my job, but I ended up taking a peek at Slatter’s September-released The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings in my Kindle. Slatter said in her intro that it’s a prequel of sorts to Sourdough and Other Stories, so logically, I exited from my copy and dove right into Sourdough.

I don’t know if my attention span’s grown shorter or there just aren’t enough really riveting books coming out lately or some other truer reason, but there have been so many times when I picked up a book and read maybe a paragraph or even a chapter of, and then put it down, not at all drawn to it again. That was not the case with Sourdough. If I put the book down, it’s because my real life intruded on my reading time; otherwise, it’s hard to leave when the paragraphs look like this from the titular story:

My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.

It didn’t seem to bother her, perhaps because, of them all, she had the greater independence and a measure of prosperity that was all her own. Perhaps that’s why he loved her best. Mother baked very fine bread, black and brown for the poor and shining white for the affluent. We were by no means rich, but we had more than those around us, and there was enough money spare for occasional gifts: a book for George, a toy train for Artor, and a THIN silver ring for me, engraved with flowers and vines.

If that doesn’t grab you, then you have no imagination at all. You get a sense while reading Slatter’s collection that it’s like walking into a bakery–there’s 16 kinds of bread all laid out nice and crisp. But don’t think you’ll know what to get once you pick one up despite such labels like “Gallowberries” or “Dibblespin” or “Little Raddish.” Don’t think that they all taste alike either, oh no–though most of the stories end in a bittersweet way, they each have their own shape, their own distinct flavor.

The only time I felt unsatisfied after reading was after “Under the Mountain.” I got the sense that it and its prequel “Sister, Sister” would have been better next to each other as opposed to being interwoven between “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.” The reason I feel this way is because I feel that, while all the stories are connected, only three sets of paired stories are true sequels to each other, with the third pair being “The Story of Ink” and “Lost Things,” which were next to each other and a little earlier in the collection. “Under the Mountain” ends on such a terribly sour note while “Lavender and Lychgates” had an ending that was a little brighter than most that came before it.

I think Slatter’s stories trained me into thinking that there is hope for each character even beyond their stories, however grim–their appearances in later stories, which also happen to be later times, are proof enough–but “Under the Mountain” was different somehow. The doors of the troll kingdom closing on the protagonist Magdalene don’t just signify the close of the story, the collection; they’re a closing off of all possibilities for her redemption, for finding any love. Of course, a lot of other characters come to such an end elsewhere in Sourdough; I may have hoped that in the roulette of tales Slatter set up, the closing tale would be hopeful, too.

Ultimate favorites from the top of my head include “Gallowberries,” “A Porcelain Soul,” “Sourdough” and its sequel, “Lavender and Lychgates.”

I’m really excited to read The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. I feel like it’ll be a little bit like coming home.

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