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.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:
"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.
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)
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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."