Few writers have burst across the Speculative Fiction scene in Australia with as much fanfare as Angela Slatter. Six or so years ago, Slatter began publishing a series of stories that garnered her immediate attention. She seemed to emerge fully formed, a writer instantly at the peak of her powers, offering lyrical, ingenious stories that seemed like a collection of so many rich chocolates. This ‘sudden emergence’ was of course an illusion. For Slatter no doubt went through all the spurts and starts of growth before she began publishing, so that when she started to make her mark, it was as an already mature writer.
Interestingly – something I have noted in a review of Deb Biancotti’s collection A Book of Endings – Slatter could certainly have made her name in the so-called ‘literary’ world, for her stories are indeed literary in the best sense of the word, in that they show attention to the language itself. The deleterious effects of genre division here play out, for Slatter is better known internationally in the SF scene, but less well-known in the local literary scene. Her work is good enough to have been published in any of the local literary magazines, or any of the mainstream local publishers, but she has ultimately gone with the excellent Ticonderoga Publications, which for years has been producing noteworthy collections of Speculative Fiction.
The Girl with No Hands collects many of Slatter’s early fairytales, some of which were written as part of a postgraduate thesis. In these stories, Slatter’s emerging star status is immediately evident. Slatter rewrites well-known fairytales from a feminist perspective, adding (or depending how you view it, restoring) an edge to them that frequently shocks. What most takes the breath away here is Slatter’s control of character and style. The prose dances, sparkles, engrosses. The opening of the first story, a rewriting of the Bluebeard tale, is a good enough example:
Her breath smells like champagne, but not bitter as you might expect.
Something inside her turns it sweet, I’m not sure what. She’s a sugar-candy kind of girl, bright and crystalline as she reclines on the sofa – chaise-longue, more correctly. Her hair is spun like golden sugar, her eyebrows so light they may as well not be there, her lashes so contrastingly black that they must be dyed, her skin pale pink, and her mouth a rosebud pout, filled with small pearly teeth. Around her neck curls a long string of beads, wrapped twice and still long enough to hang to her waist. The dress is diaphanous, shimmering yellow, damp in places with traces of her last client. She is nothing if not lush, She catches me looking and smiles.
It’s all there in this paragraph: the smooth prose that feels so easy; the altered point-of-view that tells us that we’re reading a reconstruction of the original tale; the shock of that line, towards the end, about the dress ‘damp in places with traces of her last client’. This kind of shock is something of a specialty of Slatter’s. In her Red Riding Hood rewrite, ‘Red Skein’, the girl Mathilde sways through the story with an air of danger and sex, ultimately offering herself to the wolf in an unsettling sex scene. Like in all good fairytales, there is darkness and uncertainty here.
Feminist rewriting of fairytales is not, of course, original territory, having been explored decades ago most famously by Angela Carter, who Slatter herself references. Yet Slatter is talented enough to overcome the readers’ creeping sense of having read these stories before. She gives us twists and turns that take us far from the expected narrative beats.
The political task of the tales is clear: to invert and reconstruct a ready-made story in order to reveal its ideological presuppositions, the way it depends or reinforces gender and other prejudices and to assert other ones. Slatter shows us the strength of women and the deleterious effects (for all involved) of patriarchy.
Yet the results are uneven. For Slatter’s radical undermining of conservative narrative tropes still, in slippery ways, accepts their preconditions. To shift a story’s point-of-view is only one task of narrative reconstruction. To reconstruct the narrative so that the characters venture down new and different paths, another. But for the story to exist as a reconstruction, something must remain of the original, so that we might recognize it. In Slatter’s case, the characters themselves remain to be dealt with: ‘Bluebeard’, the ‘Devil’, the delightful and innocent ‘Jacaranda woman’. These characters are not free floating individuals, but themselves an ‘ensemble of social relations’, complete with their own suggestive content. The Devil, for example, must always retain his ‘evil’, and in this case rascal-ish essence, to remain the Devil. He comes complete with cultural baggage. As soon as you place him in a story, you cannot step out of the wider context in which we understand him. So too, for example, the Jacaranda woman is too much the naïf, prey to the dictates of her controlling husband, recalling all those dominated women of the past.
There’s yet another price to be paid. For the fairytale as a form always runs the risk of becoming twee. In the passage from the Bluebeard story, we witness that the character’s breath ‘smells like champagne’, and her ‘hair [is] spun like golden sugar’. The lines are redolent of sweetness, almost overbearing. In older versions of fair tales, the physical symbols – the ‘most beautiful woman in the world’, expressed by her long golden hair, etc – function as indications of the goodness or otherwise of characters. It’s a mode difficult to translate from tales for children into adult fiction; rather, it acts as a brake on the very attempt. Slatter manages to undermine this twee-ness with her technique of ‘shock’ (using sex, mostly, an adult concern par excellence), but the latter can never quite cancel out the former.
Still, in the context of these stories, these shortcomings seem nothing but minor quibbles. Slatter’s achievements in recent times have been well rewarded, and rightly so. Perhaps the most obvious comparison we could make would be with Margo Lanagan, whose brilliant short stories foreshadowed later success as a novelist. There is no certainty that a writer can make the transition between the two, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Angela Slatter. And even if she doesn’t make the leap, she is certain to continue as one of Australia’s best SF short story writers, and the equal of any writer going around.