The joyous pleasures of reading can be so engrossing, so rewarding as to eclipse all the separate bits that go into the books within which we lose ourselves. When you discover such an author, the temptation to tell no one, to keep this treasure for yourself, battles with the impulse to shout it from the rooftops. Or these days, post in the social media. Angela Slatter is an author whose work engenders these emotions, simultaneously whirlwinds and slow-breaking tidal waves. Her latest books to take readers to Lodellan are The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales and All the Murmuring Bones, and they display an author whose incendiary talents will have readers trying as hard as possible to avoid burning up the pages, the better to linger the world Slatter creates with what feels like no effort whatsoever.
It’s important to note that readers would be well advised to seek out and read, in this order, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings and Sourdough and Other Stories first. The stories they tell create a rich backdrop for the works to hand, and as well, prepare the reader for the astonishing innovations in The Tallow-Wife and All the Murmuring Bones. With the first three books, Slatter offers what appear to be short-story/novella collections but in reading turn out to be more akin to novels-in-stories. All the Murmuring Bones is a novel, but retains Slatter’s unique style of storytelling.
All of these books are set in Lodellan, a sort of medieval fairy-tale world where the everyday drudgery of life walks and works with the supernatural. All of the stories come from a carefully controlled feminist perspective, which is to say that the subjects and tale-tellers are girls and women. With this perspective, Slatter manages to concentrate on the everyday as opposed to the epic, with the result that she finds the epic within the everyday. While each story in the first three collections is indeed self-contained, they build on one another to create an incredibly complex and enjoyable tapestry.
With The Tallow-Wife, Slatter displays the sort of mastery that takes decades to achieve. After the atmospheric opening tale, “The Promise of Saints,” the title story sets the focal points for the narratives that follow. Each short story/novella adds layers, bringing in new characters and re-examining those we have met. The thrill of the reading experience here – and it is thrilling – is not just to be found in the individual storytelling, but as well, in the experience of putting it all together into a coherent arc. It’s a particularly rich experience, like reading a 700-page novel in half the number of pages. It’s concentrated and more complex.
All the Murmuring Bones uses much of the same technique, but tells the story from one (mostly) sequential first-person point-of-view, that of Miren O’Malley, the last-in-line from a once-prosperous family fallen on hard times. By the time you get to this book, the awesome depth of Slatter’s talent will have prepared you for her first novel in the series. Miren is smart and unwilling to suffer fools. She’s a delight to experience on the page, and readers will be more than willing to follow her to hell and back; knowing, of course that’s exactly the sort of story that Slatter is inclined to tell.
Yes, Slatter is the genius we need writing literature, but two aspects of the books outside of her direct purview are important. For the Tatarus Press editions, the demure illustrations by Kathleen Jennings provide an understated atmosphere of menace and delight. They merge with the narrative and expand the reading experience. And the quality of the presentation of the Tartarus hardcover, trade paperback and even the electronic editions, provides a place where Slatter’s world can grow in the readers’ minds without effort. You’ll not only read these books, but look forward to re-reading them, to assembling Slatter’s world and stories in your mind. While they have elements of the traditional fairy-tale, this is not once upon a time. This is forever.
I had the privilege of speaking with Angela Slatter about not just her creations, but what went into creating them. The world is more fortunate than it or we know. Slatter not only writes, but teaches writing. It’s part of her DNA apparently, since it came out so naturally in our conversation. You need not imagine her storytelling talent in this regard. I have the recording here, for both your immediate pleasure – listen and learn below, and you can download the file from this link. I envy everyone who has not read or heard Angela Slatter. Rooftops being a bit dangerous for one with as uncertain a sense of balance as I, I’m making use of our own world’s supernatural means to manifest my thoughts. I’d prefer ghosts, spells, potions, were-creatures, even with the knowledge that there is always a cost.