Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
New edition hardback published by David Fickling groups (Randomhouse imprint), July 2009; originally published Sept 2008
Review by Bridie Roman
Liga lives with her father in a small cottage in the woods outside of town. She barely ever leaves the clearing and never talks to the townsfolk who pass by. There is a reason for her being kept away from the outside world: after the death of her mother Liga has been repeatedly raped by her father. She soon falls pregnant but is given two forced abortions. During her third pregnancy her father is killed in an accident. Living by herself at fifteen with a newborn child and such shame on her shoulders Liga avoids the local community; but she can’t hide forever. After being raped at the hands of five of the local young men she gives up hope on life ever being good and is ready to throw herself off a cliff to a death she would welcome. But something strange happens; she is saved and transported to her own heaven. She should know by know though; that you can’t hide forever, you can’t block out reality. When Liga’s youngest daughter, Urdda, returns to the world she should’ve been born to reality starts to merge with their slice of heaven and soon the horror of life comes flooding back in.
Based on The Brother’s Grimm tale “Red Rose and Snow White” but with gruesome extras, this tale is not fairy, it’s quite harrowing in fact. Being aimed at Young Adults, it’s no surprise that it has stirred some controversy, with many believing that younger readers should not be reading books that contain incest and gang rape. Lanagan does gloss over the details however, making the scenes completely non- explicit, leaving me wondering why she would choose to put them in at all, like she was trying to make a book for both adults and children but got stuck somewhere in-between, somewhere where it was both too childish and too adult at the same time. It really sits on the fence and makes it obviously suitable for teens but that means it is close to the children’s section and easily mistaken as book for children. I personally forsee big problems because of this but as I don’t think that books should be censored, I’m going to stick with the opinion “they have to find out about it all at some point, it may as well be while reading a charming book”.
The world these horrors are set in and the slice of heaven Liga goes to live in are wonderfully realised, with the real world being outwardly charming but quite despicable on closer inspection and “heaven” like being wrapped in cotton wool, totally comfortable while reading about it. A little too comfortable perhaps, as I soon felt stifled by the lack of action, but this is almost certainly how I was meant to feel; coming from the real world, like young Urdda, I longed for more than days of sowing and talking to slightly mindless people. I especially liked the tradition of Bear Day in the real world village of St.Olafred’s. This festival takes inspiration from Fete de l’Ours, a traditional festival in the French town of Prats de Mollo, a day in which a group of bears run through town covering everything and everyone in soot until they are caught by flour dusted hunters; it sounds like such crazy, intense fun I wish I could be part of it!
The book is quite beautiful in places, with a lot of scenes that were especially well written and touching but there is a certain lack of pace that out-weighed the beautiful nature of the writing. Now, I am used to reading more action packed books so you may call me biased and stuck in my ways but I did come away with a feeling of; what has really happened? Sure, there were horrible sex acts but other than that… nothing! I didn’t feel any urgency while reading even the most unusual scenes. In the end, what I found most impressive is that, despite all the obstacles, ultimately other emotions did shine through, such as despair, hope and love, and it is these I would say are the real backbone of the book.
To summarise: this seems to be a book whose leisurely pace and emphasis on the routine mundanity of Liga’s life (through fabulous prose) emphasise the real horrors within. Though there are scenes of brutality and violence, what impressed me most is that this is one of those books, despite initial impressions, whose true horrors are not the overtly explicit type, but rather the awfulness that only seems awful when the reader moves away from the book. It has a lasting impression that grows in your memory. This is the sort of tale that makes readers, like me, distinctly unsettled after reading it. It’s a worthwhile read, but rarely a comfortable one.
Review by Bridie Roman September 2009