Monday, April 27, 2009

Tender Morsels

14-year-old Riga is living an unbearable life. Since the death of her mother, she has lived in a run-down old shack all alone with her father, who abuses her physically, emotionally, and sexually. She is kept away from the other villagers, kept apart, under his thumb, working hard, dreading the night time. When things become so very horrible that, finding herself with a baby and no way to keep either of them safe, she decides that death is preferable. But there is something - we never know what - a fairy? A sprite? A deity? that intervenes, transporting Liga and her baby to a safe place. Liga thinks of the benefic being as the moon-baby.

There they live, in an idyllic village, with kind people and safe wild animals, Liga and - eventually - two wonderful daughters. It is a delightful place to grow up, but even so, the real world insinuates itself from time to time, in the form of a greedy "littlee" man and some men in bear shape who travel through the veil separating the two worlds. One of the daughters finds herself longing for the truth, needing to know what lies on the other side. When she follows one of the bears through into the real world, she finds herself unprepared for the villagers' way of life. Still, it all so exhilarating and real.

This retelling of the fairytale "Snow White and Rose Red" is even darker and menacing than the grimmest Grimm's tale. Traditional fairy tales are all about plot and wonder - the characters tend to be flat, more devices to hang the story on than real people. When the characters gain depth and resonance, their misadventures are felt on a gut level, which makes for some difficult reading. I identified so strongly with Liga that, while I found the book to be valuable reading, I can't exactly say that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed parts of it, but after setting it down, I always returned to it with a dull sense of dread. Bad things happen in this book from its opening pages - and knowing that such things can and do happen gave the book an overshadowing sense of unease for me, as I considered the possible future of these characters I was coming to care so much about.

Lanagan has a writing style that is vivid and evocative, creating a pervasive sense of wonder, particularly as she relates the supernatural elements. For example, when Liga finds herself transported to her safe world, she is astounded when she finally comprehends what has happened:

Like a shaft of moon-plum light, it came to her, the realization: this was hers, all hers, the work and gift of the moon-baby.

"I do not deserve this!" But she heard the words miss the mark. The forces behind these events, these gifts, had stars and seasons to move, oceans to summon, continents to lay waste. They did not take account of such small things as Liga's deserving or Liga's not. To them in their vastness, she must look as blameless as her baby. This was a mere blink of their eye, a grain of purest luck fallen from a winnowing of such size that it was not given her to see the sense or benefit of it.
And beneath the sense of wonder, the supernatural elements, is a pervasive sense of the real world, of human nature and the fact that, magical happenings or not, life moves on:

Four years passed, and not without incident, for the infancy and childhood of two girls, making a mother out of their mam and sisters out of each other, is one incident after another, each as momentous as the last.
The narrative structure of the book did not always work for me - at times it felt as though the book were a patchwork of several short stories cobbled together. There were some odd point-of-view shifts that were confusing and had the effect of making the story momentarily lose its direction and focus. The third-person narration at times switched into first person, yet the first-person narrator was a relatively minor character, and the switch was puzzling and threw me out of the story for a moment or two each time it happened. However, that is a minor quibble in this powerful, bittersweet story about life, loss, and transformation.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Also reviewed at:
Eva's Book Addiction: "From its truly horrifying and brutal beginning to its satisfying but bittersweet end, this novel is mesmerizing."
Neth Space: "As wonderfully told the story is, I have to admit that Tender Morsels is a story that really didn’t appeal to me. It’s not a book that I enjoyed reading, though to approach this book as a story to ‘enjoy’, may not be the best approach."
Page 247: "The fantasy is woven so tightly into this story that it became real for me, and I love the bears."
Things Mean a Lot: "I seriously couldn’t have loved Tender Morsels more. It’s such an intelligent, sensitive book. It’s both brutal and gentle, both subtle and completely naked."

10 comments:

  1. I really really really want to read this! I'm sorry the narrative structure wasn't always for you although putting short stories together seemed to work for The Graveyard Book.

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  2. I am looking forward to getting around to this book very soon!

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  3. It does sound a bit like a patchwork quilt but also like a very interesting story and I love a fairytale retelling!

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  4. I shuddered reading your review. This defintely sounds like a dark book.

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  5. Rhinoa - You know, it really did work for The Graveyard Book - I think because the narrative arc felt continuous, and not choppy or disorienting. I'll be looking forward to your thoughts once you've read it!

    Kailana - I'll be on the lookout for your review!

    Ladytink - It was a very interesting story, and it was fascinating to see how she worked in all the right elements - the dwarf, the bears, the bushes, etc.

    Nicola - It is a very dark book, but also rewarding, and the ending felt right. It didn't leave me in tears or depressed, although I could have wished for certain aspects to have turned out differently.

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  6. You know, what you said about the POV and structure is the kind of thing that normally bothers me, but in this case I was so engrossed in the story I didn't even notice the shifts at all! Isn't it funny how that happens sometimes? Anyway, I'm glad you liked it overall :)

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  7. Nymeth - I would never have had the nerve to try it had I not read your review. I did like it very much - it's such a powerful book! Thanks for your reassurance! :-)

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  8. This sounds really good. Thanks for the review.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  9. I'm sort of afraid of reading this book. I'm really sensitive about matters of rape and violence against women. I'm not sure I'd be able to enjoy the story without being completely horrified!
    But on the other hand I'm curious to join in the buzz, this book is really getting more and more popular!

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  10. Valentine - I know exactly how you feel. I never would have read this had it not been for Nymeth's recommendation. If you can get through the beginning, you'll be all right. It's dark and awful, but not overly explicit - it's just that the idea is conveyed way too well, even in its non-explicit language, so it is disturbing. It is a powerful book, though, and I'm glad I read it.

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