Margo Lanagan, Black Juice

I don’t use the word “perfect” or its derivatives very often. In Black Juice, Margo Lanagan has perfected a certain tone – a pervasive disquiet, an all-consuming unsettledness. It is hard to get your feet under you in many of her stories: something is different, not right. In the rare missteps, the slight off-kilter of her narrators caused me to look for a twist – the inhuman narrators of “Sweet Pippit” are really monkeys or trees or something that aligns with human experience or something like that – but Lanagan is better than that. There’s no easy punch line to any of her stories.

There’s no easiness in any of her stories. Along with the discomfort of the stories, there’s a strong undercurrent of sorrow: in “House of the Many,” a young boy leaves the world he’s grown up with, a village of cultists. When he returns, he finds that nothing is as big or as terrifying as he had remembered it. It’s not a new theme, but Lanagan plays it well: the boy’s reactions to the wideness of the full world and to the diminishment of the world he’d left are equally heartbreaking.

Her characters are often lost to themselves, like the nameless lady of “My Lord’s Man.” The wife of the lord has run away; her husband finds her and instead of taking vengeance dances with her. Watching, the lord’s servant doesn’t understand: “‘Mullord sees something in you,’ I finally say, ‘beyond your beauty and beyond your rage at the world. If he sees it, I believe it must be there.’” But the lady doesn’t see it either; the story ends with no resolution of the tension between the man and the lady – but with hope in the lord’s vision: “‘So we must both trust my lord’s sight,’ she whispers, ‘and hold onto that trust, mustn’t we? ’Tis all either of us can do.’”

And trust in others, in one’s family and in one’s community, is often what her stories are about. “Singing My Sister Down,” is a touching story of a family watching the ritual sacrifice of their sister and daughter in a tar pit. Lanagan normalizes the sacrifice and the reaction to it: it is an exceptional day, because the punishment (the woman has killed her husband) is unusual, but the method of execution is not extraordinary. And the woman, Ikky, trusts in her mother and her brother to watch her until she has sunk beneath the tar.

Lanagan’s prose is another attraction: every word is carefully chosen, showing the beauty of her constructions without seeming precious or overwrought. Take this passage from “Rite of Spring,” a story of the wind and the boy who has to bring the springtime to his people: “They’re something to throw at the wind; words seem like nothing, but they’re tiny, fancy, people’s things. Who cares whether they do anything? What else can we put up against the wind except our tininess and fanciness? What else can the wind put up against us but its big, dumb, howling brute-strength?” I can’t say anything about it; it’s simply right.

So is the whole collection. It’s bleak, but there’s a thread of hope throughout the bleakness: that if the man can’t see what his lord sees in his lady, the lord does; that even if you’re doomed to sink beneath the tar, your family will be there; that the plants at the end of “Perpetual Light,” a story about a woman burying her grandmother, will flourish: “Would they all twelve prove viable, their stalks strengthening, their greenness emerging, thickening, bunching, seemingly out of nothing and for no reason, vibrating slightly in their rows?”

Angela Slatter, The Bitterwood Bible

The Bitterwood Bible is marred by a homogeneity of tone and theme. It’s a collection of connected stories, but despite those connections, the stories would be better served by being read separately. Slatter’s prose is often lovely; it’s delicate and soft, and well tuned to the purpose of illuminating moments in the lives of her heroines. But in excess it becomes cloying. There’s a feeling after finishing these thirteen stories that you’ve read one, or at best two. These stories are, without exception, about young women in powerless positions; there’s nothing wrong with that, except that it could be the same young woman, acting out various setups of the chessboard.

The two strongest stories are the first, “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” and one of the least integral, “The Night Stair.” “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” drops the reader into its world with no help; we don’t know why the titular character tells the widow that her mirrors should be covered – but we soon find out. And this heroine is the most defined, and the least conventional: she’s not afraid to shirk her duty for personal gain. “The Night Stair” is a vampire story; in the end, this heroine takes up the mantle of vampirism because she would be the kindest possible vampire. Like the other heroines, the girls at the center of these two stories deal with power, both magical and social; the exploration is at its subtlest here.

Unfortunately, many of the rest of the stories run together. A young girl is in a disadvantaged position, probably due to a man’s influence; she will probably not come out of it happily or without personal sacrifice. There are worse formulae. But it is hard to read these stories without wishing for something to lift the mist of the soft prose and the sad situations. Further, the world these women live in is vague at best. Some of this is due to carelessness: a girl is referred to as having “platinum” hair in a setting that seems to be medieval or at best early modern. There are graver faults, however: in this seemingly medieval setting, a man wears a “three-corner hat”; there are “timepieces;” a girl goes to a “bookseller.” All this in a world with such intensely Old English names as Adlisa, Deor, and Oswain. There is no sense that this world is not medieval England, but it is clearly not supposed to be.

Lastly, while the prose is beautiful much of the time, there are a few noticeable lapses. Her characters are nearly always introduced with the color of their hair and eyes, along with another detail of their appearance:

A small woman with a pixie’s face, hard brown eyes and short blonde curls stares at me.

The door is unlocked by a short, pinched-face girl with dark hair and an ice green gaze, a black dress and a white maid’s apron over the top.

In the second example, the description of the girl, who speaks once and never reappears, is completely unnecessary; in the first, the description is inelegantly introduced. Then there’s the sentences like the much too modern “Silence all around as we file it under we’ll never know.” “File it under” implies, of course, a filing system, which would never exist in the world as she’s created it. Most egregious is “‘Blah, blah, blah,’ she says, rolls her eyes and makes to shut me out.” The character is supposed to be rude, but this goes beyond rudeness and into teenage petulance.

Nonetheless, in a genre overflowing with machismo and violence done by both women and men, perhaps we need a book that shows the quiet moments, with violence done subtly if at all. There are no great armies or hugely consequential battles here; it’s about the fate of single people, or at most villages. It is a shame, however, that the stories do not distinguish themselves from each other more.