ANGELA SLATTER The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. Reviewed by Lou Murphy
The Bitterwood Bible is a masterful offering of haunting stories that traverse the bounds of myth and legend.
In this prequel to Sourdough & Other Stories (2010) Slatter proves herself to be a master storyteller, offering a compendium of bittersweet tales to be devoured with relish. Weaving reappearing characters and their journeys through a landscape as bleak and unforgiving as it is psychically familiar, the 13 stories chart juicy plotlines of misguided love, sacrifice, and revenge.
The power of the written word itself is a recurring theme of The Bitterwood Bible. Thus, it seems fitting that the physical embodiment of this limited printing – complete with its ethereal illustrations by Kathleen Jennings – is so delightful. This beautiful edition is worthy of becoming an heirloom and deserves to be handled with the white-cotton-gloved care of the bibliophile. Books feature prominently in the stories; their power to hold magical secrets passed through the ages brings bloodshed and horror to those foolish or careless enough to loosen their guard on the supernatural tomes in their care. In ‘St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls’, a story set in an establishment dedicated to the education of select young women in mastering the art of murder, one of the students – Mercia – pursues a secret mission: to transcribe the contents of The Compendium of Contaminants, rumoured to be the first and greatest of poisoners’ bibles.
… And this is why I am here; this is my initiation task to earn my place among St Florian’s secret sisters, the Murchianii, the collectors, the recorders, the travelling scribes who gather all manner of esoteric and eldritch knowledge so it might not pass out of the world. Folktales and legends, magic and spells, bestiaries of creatures once here and now long-gone, histories and snippets of lives that have intersected with our efforts, our recordings … and books like these, the dark books, the dangerous books, the books that some would burn but which we save because knowledge, all knowledge, is too important to be lost.
Each word is selected with purposeful intent to best deliver the shocking wisdom that lies at the heart of each story.
In ‘Spells for Coming Forth by Daylight’, a vengeful sister – Nel – follows the enchanted directions of a bloodstained pin for four years, hoping to find, by this fickle compass, the Viceroy, responsible for the death of her sister. To pay for her passage she attempts to sell Murciana’s great book Murcianus: Magica: A book of craft to Sister Blanchefleur, the owner of Carabhilles’ Fine Books in Lodellan:
She takes a long drink from the pewter goblet – it is engraved with books and sayings such as verba volant, scripta manent, which she told me earlier means spoken words fly away, written words remain, and others still about books and readers and their shared fates …
With lucid detail Slatter depicts a world resting at the periphery of our subconscious, steeped in pagan history. In the tradition of Dylan Thomas, with his fictional seaside village of Llareggub in Under Milk Wood, Slatter travels through the cathedral city of Lodellan to the towns of Iserthal, the coastal breakwaters of Cwen’s Reach, Bellsholm, Breakwater, Southarp and St Simeon-in-the-Grove. At every resting point she allows us a glimpse through locked doors, uncovering the secrets that lie within.
Questions course through the dark blood of each tale. In ‘The Bitterwood Bible’, the title story of the collection, Murciana – the first of the Blessed Wanderers – is instructed by her master, the Magister, to ask a series of questions of Mater Adela and Beatrice (the dismembered head of a woman, preserved through hundreds of years):
How to transform things for a season?
How to kill without a trace?
How to live beyond one’s time?
The answers to these questions are delivered time and again with brutal repercussions for the inhabitants of these ingeniously gripping stories.
Angela Slatter The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings Tartarus Press 2014 HB (limited edition) 220pp $69.95. Also available as an ebook from the publisher.
Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy