The Bone Lantern by Angela Slatter
PS Publishing, pb, £18.00 (Signed £25)
Reviewed by Rym Kechacha
Of all the tropes, story structures and arcs out there, I have to confess that tales-within-tales is one of my favourites. I love the nod to oral storytelling, the wink and nudge at the reader and the potential for thematic and narrative reflections and distortions. I’m just a sucker for them; I all but purr when I’m reading and a character starts to tell someone a story. So Angela Slatter’s new novella, The Bone Lantern, was already winning with me as I began the first pages.
The novella is three interlinked stories. Selke, someone mysteriously more than human, encounters a being while camping in the woods and to stave off danger, she tells the stranger ‘The Tale of a Necklace’, the story of Gwynn, the daughter and assistant of the chief physician to the Prince of the city of Lodellan who has to find a way to escape a terrible honour.
Then the stranger requests another story, and Selke obliges with ‘The Tale of a Harp’, in which Alix, the daughter of a harp maker, is also subject to the whims of a powerful man, the Swan Prince. The two tales seem linked, not only by taking place in the same kind of magical world our storyteller and listener live in but also thematically, with young women outsmarting a powerful man and his whims. We’re left wondering what our narrator’s relationship is to the stories and the young women in them and how Selke herself – an enigmatic character we have met elsewhere in the books that make up what Angela Slatter calls the Sourdough cycle – might be involved in what came to pass and what happened next.
I really like the way Slatter seems to be building this world over the course of several differently sized books: the short story collections Sourdough and Other Stories, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, The Tallow Wife and Other Tales, the novel All the Murmuring Bones, and the novella Of Sorrow and Such. The shape of it feels pleasing, going sideways and diagonally, constructing cells of it like a beehive rather than moving along one linear timeline as in the traditional sense of a series. However, that does mean that The Bone Lantern as a whole felt somewhat incomplete. The two stand-alone tales were beautifully rounded off, but there was something tantalisingly unresolved about Selke’s framing story and the relationship to the strange being she’s telling to that made me itch. I craved more of a conclusion, but I am quietly confident- or perhaps just hopeful – that there will be some kind of resolution within the wider scope of the Sourdough cycle. In some ways, this feeling is great, as I’ve read some of the books set in this world and am now even more minded to seek out more, but it comes with a warning that reading The Bone Lantern – especially if it’s a first foray into this world – will end up acting as a kind of gateway drug.
The books from the Sourdough universe have been called fairytale-like. This is not only because they use character types we recognise from fairytales like stepmothers and princes and mermaids but also because of a certain form to the work that builds the story within a recognisable structure. In the essay ‘Fairytale is Form, Form is Fairytale’ by Kate Bernheimer, she says, ‘Fairy tales are the skeletons of story, perhaps. Reading them often provides an uneasy sensation – a gnawing familiarity – that comforting yet supernatural awareness of living inside a story.’ Angela Slatter is an expert at manipulating, stretching and making her own the conventions of fairytale to construct this seductive world, with language-rich but elegant while never being twee. The characters are not exactly flat, but they are often recognisable, chiming in a familiar way. The settings are lush, with glimmering magic of their own. The magic is normalised and comes with consequences, a spend and a cost. There is a core of darkness that reminds us that we can never take anything for granted, no matter what world we live in.
More than anything else, this balance between light and dark makes The Bone Lantern and other Sourdough cycle books so satisfying for me. The feeling of recognition and surprise, comfort and challenge, old and new, makes you settle in as people always have as someone says, ‘Let me tell you a story.’