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Caroline Hunter reviews Sourdough by Robin Sloan. Publisher: Text Publishing.
After finishing this book, I immediately sought out the author's previous novel so I could relish more of his writing.
Robin Sloan is a fresh voice whose originality is beguiling. Both the plot and the prose of Sourdough reflect his fierce intelligence, while never straying from an underlying warmth.
Readers may be familiar with the experience of getting a few pages into a book and realising you are in the presence of a wonderful mind - one that produces envy-inducing phrases and observations. It's the literary equivalent of an "a-ha'' moment and you just know you are going to enjoy yourself.
Computer programmer Lois Clary is Sloan's protagonist and the story begins as she moves from Michigan to San Francisco to work for a robotics firm, one that demands long hours and total dedication, pushing a normal lifestyle out of reach. She comes to rely on a local sandwich shop to keep her nourished late at night and strikes up a friendship with the two brothers who own it.
When visa problems force them to leave, their parting gift to Lois is an unusual sourdough starter, but she is initially reluctant to take on the responsibility of feeding it or making bread. However, curiosity prevails and she begins to produce rather splendid loaves that impress her colleagues and catch the attention of the chef at the office canteen. Soon she is filling a daily order for the chef, building a backyard oven to keep up with demand, and trying out for a spot at a local market.
As her bread-making evolves, Lois still holds down her robotics job but she finds a way to make it all work and her sense of wellbeing starts to grow. Then comes an invitation to take part in a very different kind of market - a cutting-edge research-and-development food outfit on an island across San Francisco Bay that used to be a military installation.
Things take a decidedly sci-fi (and somewhat allegorical) turn at this point, but Lois' experimental baking at the out-there market brings together both strands of her world in an intriguing environment, and gives free rein to the author's knowledge on a whole range of subjects, not to mention his sparkling imagination.
There are several other story arcs involving Lois that run alongside the main narrative and they all serve to signpost her journey from IT slave to enlightened creator, and her transition into someone who understands the need to have a balanced life. Although technology features large, the heart of this tale is definitely human - with a little magic thrown in from the microbial world.
Sourdough is one of the most unusual and satisfying novels I have read in a long while and there are riches in store for those who might open its pages. Thoroughly recommended.
Caroline Hunter is an ODT subeditor.