Book 15 in my latest reading project is Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (published in 2008).
Content note: references to child molestation, abortion, (both female and male) rape and suicide attempt.
Based on the Brothers Grimm story of “Snow White and Rose Red,” the novel tells the story of Liga Longbourne and her two daughters. In the beginning of the story, she lives alone with her abusive father in a small run-down hut in the outskirts of a small town and, after some forced abortions, concocts a way to give birth to a live child. After the death of her father, she’s gangraped by five young men and becomes pregnant again. Desperate to stop her pain, she tries jumping off a cliff but is instead transported to an alternate, magical, safe world created from her own wishes.
Liga lives contentedly for a few years with her daughters Branza and Urdda until holes made between the two worlds begins to affect their lives. Visitors from the ‘real’ world come through, including first a cranky, gold-lusting dwarf and, later, first one and then another young man dressed as bears for the town’s annual festival. Both men are magically turned into actual bears in Liga’s world and stay with the women as half-tame companions until each find his way back to their own world. The rupture also causes time to flow differently between the worlds, which creates further complications down the line.
More headstrong and restless than her sister, Urdda follows one of the Bears back through a rupture one day, and about a year later with the help of Miss Dance, a powerful doctress and magic user, is able to bring Liga and Branza back as well. Liga, Branza and Urdda are helped by Lady Annie (low-power magician and mudwife, as women healers are called in the world) and Davit Ramstrong (the first Bear who came through to Liga’s world) to set up as seamstresses in town. However, settling back in the real world isn’t easy for anyone, and each of the three women must find their way to deal with it.
Tender Morsels is a bittersweet, at times heartbreaking story about choices and consequences, damage and healing, resilience and ways in which individuals (especially those who have experienced trauma) might fit into a larger society. There’s no one clear story arc, nor is it any one person’s story. Also, some events (like the dwarf’s incursions into Liga’s world) feel only very loosely connected to the rest. The abuse is unsettling to read, of course, but it’s handled without graphic detail, objectification or sensationalizing.
Lanagan’s writing is evocative and conveys both beauty and pain in a down-to-earth way, befitting most of the cast. The main characters are all very skillfully crafted, plus they speak in their own dialect(s) which for me as a linguist was a lot of fun. At times, the switches from one protagonist to another were a little confusing and not helped by the changes from third person to first person narrator. Once I got used to that, however, I thought it strengthened the storytelling.
The best aspect of Tender Morsels was how effortlessly Lanagan treats women as people first and foremost, each with their own strengths, flaws, dreams and emotions. The presence of toddlers and younger children in addition to teenagers was also a strong plus. (One of my pet peeves is a story where different groups of people are essentially siloed away from others without any rhyme or reason for the world to work that way.)
Tender Morsels is very fairytale-like, but not the saccharine kind or containing only polar opposites. Fairytales aren’t usually among my favorite fare, but I quite liked Lanagan’s nuanced take. It reminds me of another novel I read recently, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. While I appreciated many aspects of Uprooted, I didn’t like it, and can’t quite understand the buzz about it. However, it sounds like Tender Morsels worked for me like Uprooted worked for its fans.
P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.