Robin Sloan: Sourdough, Atlantic books, London, 2017, 261 pp.
I am not sure how I got on to this. Someone in my family got it out of the library for me and I have now read it – cover to cover. So, I thought I’d share my impressions. I am not a book professional, so I am not sure how this would be classified, but to my mind it is a fairy-tale tragic-comic science-fiction story with a good ending. Some of us have fantasies about the better life, better food, and better sourdough bread, some of us have beliefs about that and live by those beliefs. This book takes those beliefs, puts them in the context of Silicon Valley, in the character of a software engineer specialising in kitchen robots. But at its heart the beginning of the story is about her developing an addiction to regular deliveries of spicy soup and sourdough bread, and an attachment to the young man delivering it every evening. Not far into the story, the brothers who provide the soup and sourdough have to leave because of visa complexities and give their sourdough starter to their favourite customer with a remit to take care of it, and to play it music regularly. The starter is musical itself and ‘sings’ which made me wonder what it would be like if our starter in the bread circle bakery were to sing: Depending on the music it could be wonderful! A rather touching story is told about how – never having baked anything before – the main character starts making bread in her kitchen, then progressing to building her own bread oven in the back yard of her rental apartment and selling bread as a side line to her other work – a common and familiar story in the artisan bread world that also resonates with the story of the bread circle. Unusually, her bread is characterised by having strange facial features in the crust when coming out of the oven.
The narrative develops into something fantastic and wild, merging food and futuristic technology, with some people wholly living on synthetic food compounds and with the hero eventually giving up her work to become a fulltime baker in a futuristic ‘farmer’s market’. The sourdough starter becomes an increasingly volatile and unpredictable creature, resulting in phantasmagorical events leading to an extraordinary climax.
For me it was a good read even though it lost some of its captivating magic when the story became more and more unreal and kind of American. I recommend it as good entertainment with some very realistic action that makes good fun of the more bizarre aspects of the alternative food movement. ‘A plot that makes the book a page turner and a laugh-out-louder, with sweetness and romance and tartness and irony in perfect balance.’ as someone is quoted saying on the cover.
31.3.18 Michael Göpfert