Feb 24, 2009

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

And here she was; back where terrors could immobilize her, and wonders too; where life might become gulps of strong ale rather than sips of bloom-tea.
Liga Longfield, aged fourteen, lives with her father on the outskirts of a village. The story’s setting is never quite identified, but Lanagan said she imagines it to be a fairy tale Eastern Europe. Liga’s mother is dead, and ever since her passing her father has been sexually abusing her. As no means of contraception are used, Liga experiences repeated pregnancies and miscarriages, some induced by the herbs her father gets from Muddy Annie, a local wise woman. Liga is kept so isolated that she doesn’t even realize what’s happening at first. She doesn’t make the connection between her bleeding and suffering and the teas her father gives her to, he claims, “make her bones strong”.

When she does, however, she successfully hides a new pregnancy for six months. Something then happens that takes her father out of the scene, and Liga gives birth to a daughter, Branza. She is later raped again by a group of town boys who hear that she’s living alone, and a second daughter, Urdda, is conceived. Liga almost takes her own life, but instead she finds her way into the land of her Heart’s Desire – a world similar to the real one, but with no place for violence or harshness. A world seemingly ideal to raise two girls in. But the real world, with its charms and intrusions, cannot be kept at bay forever.

Tender Morsels deals with rape, but it’s never actually explicit. What it does is suggest what happens, and your mind does the rest. But nothing is actually masked. Especially not the impact, physical and psychological, that this kind of violence has on Liga. I love that Margo Lanagan doesn't ever make us pity Liga. She makes our heart break for her, yes, and she makes us love her, and respect her, and wish her the very best.

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. It deals with gender, with power, with violence against women, with sexuality in its cruellest as well as its sweetest aspects, with vulnerability and fear, with compassion and motherhood and love.

There are three main moments in the story: the first is when Liga is living in the real world. The second is when her daughters are growing up in the place of her Heart’s Desire. This part borrows some elements from the Snow White and Rose Red fairy tale, with the two sisters befriending enchanted bears. And finally, in the last third or so of the book, Liga, Branza and Urdda are back in the real world (this is not a spoiler, by the way, as it’s clear from the beginning that they will eventually have to return).

This last one was actually my favourite part of the story, when they, as Branza puts it at one point, begin to have to deal with the complications of real people who have wants of their own. I’ve seen a review that compares Tender Morsels to a George Eliot novel, and while I can’t (yet!) speak for myself, this is indeed how I’m always told Eliot is: the subtleties and the complexities of human interactions, the ambiguity, the realness, the lack of easy answers. All the characters and their feelings feel so real. And Margo Lanagan captures things so perceptively, so wisely; she treats them with such care. This novel left me with the same kind of "wow, she knows so much about people" feeling I get when I read Terry Pratchett's best novels.

There is one scene in particular that I loved. It’s honestly one of the best scenes I have ever come across, in books of any kind. It’s when Liga is telling someone for the first time what happened to her, who fathered her daughters. It’s a perfect scene, as much for what is said as for what it isn’t. The gaps, the silences, the little space between these two women: they’re so full of feeling. Full of the brim. It’s a quiet and delicate scene, not particularly dramatic, but wow, the emotions are all there. It made me cry for two reason—first because it’s a very touching moment in the story, and secondly because I was awed that I'd found a piece of fiction this perfect.

There are other moments, other quiet, touching, unforgettable little moments between people. The two town boys who survive the enchantment of the she-bear comforting each other. Davit and his wife Todda talking in the dark. Even if it weren’t for everything else—and everything else is so much—the book would be worth reading for these moments alone.

And I haven’t even begun to tell you about the writing yet. The writing, too, is perfect, and beautiful, and unique. The characters speak in a dialect, and this is an important part of what gives the book its distinctive flavour. I can’t really explain it, so you’ll have to see for yourself. It has a folktale feel to it, but it’s more than that.

Tender Morsels is a serious, strange, heartbreaking and beautiful book. And it’s so sweet. It’s full of horrors, yes, but it’s also truly sweet, sweet in a genuine, not at all sugar-coated sort of way. It’s so full of tenderness. It reminded me of The Graveyard Book, actually. The two books are not really similar, but one reminded me of the other in a very specific way, which has to do with how they deal with the theme of safety versus, well, life. And with parenthood: loving your children but knowning when to let them go.

This is the book I will henceforth shove down the throats of people who dismiss fantasy, who dismiss YA. This book alone is enough to place Margo Lanagan among my favourite authors. I don’t care if I turn out to hate everything else she’s written (which I doubt I will). This is enough. I love it when a book I have high expectations for, like Nation or Paper Towns, actually surpasses them. But I think I love it even more when an author I've never read before knocks me off my feet like this. I’ll tell you something, actually, and if you know me you’ll know how much I mean by this: I’m so glad Tender Morsels won a Printz Honor along with Nation. It deserves to. They deserve to stand side by side.

And now for favourite passages. I tried not to overdo it. Really, I did. These are only a few of the literally dozens of passages I marked. But I have to show you: I have to show you the language, the raw and gut-wrenching power of the writing, so that you understand what her descriptions could do to me, how a single sentence could make me want to cry:
She had been all prepared to love it, but there was not very much to love. She had never seen a baby so thin and wizened. Its face was just creases, thick with down. It had the finest, darkest, sourest lips, disapproving anciently, godlikely, distantly. It had the look of a lamb born badly, of a baby bird fallen from the nest—that doomed look, holy and lifeless, swollen-eyed, retreated too far into itself to be awakened.

The girls were two flames at which she warmed herself to humanness, having long been something else—stone, perhaps; dried-out wood. Their perfect trust that the happy times would continue—she watched it and she sipped it as some small birds sip nectar, and she began, if not to perfectly trust it herself, at least to hope more strongly, at least to look beyond the beauties of the immediate season to the plans and practicalities demanded by the next—or the next several years, maybe? Maybe.

I had never spoke to a woman like this before, who had no apologies for herself yet were not laundress or night-girl nor gypsy. It felt very like talking to a man, except with a man there is always them little jousts going on and those little assessments, yourself against him. There was none of that with this person; now that she had the sense of my predicament, she were bent only on the matter of what I said.

Not one would dare spit upon this woman, or call out at her. She had a different kind of boldness, a strength that did not defy that of men so much as ignore it, or take its place without question beside it—Urdda wanted some of that boldness.

There is something about talking in the night, with the shreds of sleep around your ears, with the silences between one remark and another, the town dark and dreaming beyond your own walls. It draws the truth out of you, straight from its little pool down there, where usually you guard it so careful, and wave your hand over it and hum and haw to protect people’s feelings, to protect your own.

Other Blog Reviews:
Eva’s Book Addiction
Page 247
Six Boxes of Books
Books & Other Thoughts
Bottle of Shine
A Comfy Chair and a Good Book
Neth Space
Reading Rants!
Regular Rumination
A Striped Armchair
The Zen Leaf
books i done read
Fyrefly's Book Blog
My Fluttering Heart
dreaming out loud

(I was sad to only find one…more people should be reading this book. Anyway, let me know if I missed yours.)

And if you find the cover art as amazing as I do, check out the artist’s website. I oohed and aahed for a very long time while going through her gallery.


  1. The subject matter sounds pretty awful, but since you say it's so good, I hope the library has it! :) And the cover art is definitely beautiful.

  2. It is awful, but the book's not actually depressing. And it's not as hard to read as I'd expect a book about incest and abuse and their effects to be. I think you'd love it, Eva. Fingers crossed that the library has it.

  3. I'll try to get this as well, even though I find it hard to believe you that it's not depressing! How do you find so many interesting books Nymeth??

  4. Great review! I love Eliot's writing, and you make this one sound so good. I'm definitely putting this on the wishlist. Thanks!

  5. When I started reading your review, I immediately thought of Robin McKinley's Deerskin, which also deals with incest. But from there they sound very different- I'm curious to read this one, now.

  6. I tried to read her short stories in "Black Juice" some years ago, but I couldn't. They were too cryptic and honestly I didn't have a clue what she was talking about most of the time...

    This one sounds really beautiful but also very painful. I'll keep it in mind!

  7. Wow. I didn't think that Lanagan could get any darker than she did in "Singing My Sister Down" or "Red Nose Day" in Black Juice, but it sounds like she did. She's such a unique writer. Her oblique handling of setting reminds me a lot of William Gibson, but the tone of her writing is all her own.

  8. I agree the subject matter does sound dark, but it sounds like a book worth reading. I love the title, but I'm not so sure about the cover.

  9. I'm torn. It does sound awfully depressing, but you describe it so well, and I'm not sure i can handle it but think I should probably try.

  10. that was an amazing review! I have never heard about the book but I definitely want to pick it up right now! I am adding it to my wishlist for sure!

  11. Wow, that sounds like an amazing book. Normally I would be fairly reluctant to tackle a book with those themes, but I trust you that it won't be depressing. Thanks for the lovely review.

  12. I think I told you already that I have this on my shelf. I can't fit it in right now into my reading scheldule but I sure want to! Maybe April...

  13. I've never heard of this book either. I see that it is published by 'Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers' Does this mean it is aimed at teenagers?

  14. Joanna: I wouldn't lie to you, I promise :P Some parts are very, very sad. But it's about surviving. And in the end it's such a sweet book. I discovered it because Neil Gaiman spoke highly of it on Good Reads. He was right!

    Lisa, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And I've got to read some Eliot.

    Jeane: This one was actually less disturbing than Deerskin. Much less. Maybe because it's YA? Not that it sugar-coats anything...but like Margo Lanagan says in the interview I linked to, she leaves things vague so that readers who know what's going on can fill the gaps, and those who don't get to keep their blissful ignorance.

    Valentina: Really? That's too bad :\ The writing in this one is not cryptic at all, fortunately. It IS beautiful, and painful, and heartwarming and heartbreaking, and I really think you'd enjoy it.

    Loren Eaton: The subject could hardly be darker, but the book actually isn't. I'm curious about the rest of her stuff now. She is indeed unique!

    bermudaonion: I guess that artwork style is not for everyone, but I just love it!

    Amanda: I want to start a "not depressing or your money back" campaign :P It did make me cry more than once, but in the end what the story is about is how life is worth living, and full of precious things, despite all the hurt we might find.

    Ramya, thank you. It's a really, really amazing book.

    Darla: I really do understand your reluctance. But thank you for trusting me! I was happy to find a YA book that deals with this topic, actually, and that does it so well. I see why both writers and readers hesitate to even go there, but... actual teenagers have what happened to Liga happen to them. More than we imagine. And books like this, like The Tale of One Bad Rat, help. They break the silence, and that alone is important.

    Lenore: I hope you manage to read it then! It's such a great book.

    farmlanebooks: It is, yes. It won a Printz Honor just recently, actually!

  15. From the cover alone I figured this was going to be a sad/difficult story. I had no idea what it was about though until reading your review. Oh man, it sounds like one of those narratives that can just leave you raw but it sounds very good. I am putting this one on my wish list. Thank you for such a great review!

  16. It's on my TBR list--for the TBR challenge I mean. I hope to get to it soon! I really do :)


  17. Now that you mention it, Charles de Lint also deals with those issues in a heartfelt, touching way that does not leave me wanting to slit my wrists. Yes - such books are indeed important, not only to the victims of such abuse, but to those around them, so that they can be aware - and better understand and support them.

  18. I am waiting for this book to come in for me at the library. We have a lot of reading in common, you know... :)

  19. Oh it sounds so sad, but worth reading. That's the kind of book I like.

  20. Well, kudos to you, Nymeth. I was pulled in to read your review by the beautiful art on the book cover, but as I started to read, I thought, This is not the type of book for me. But I kept reading your review, and the way you described the writing, among other things, and the fact that you said Liga was not the object of pity in the story, along with the samples of writing you included, has intrigued me so that I really would like to give this a try. If the book inspires such a well-written review, it must be good!

  21. I've not heard of this author, but the premise and your lovely review has made me want to read the book!!! I'm always drawn to this kind of story... bittersweet and yet powerful.

    Will have to add this to my wishlist!!! :D

  22. Yeah this would make me want to cry. I swear I think I read a similar fairy tale somewhere...

  23. Hmm, sounds interesting, sad, but interesting. I'll add it to the TBR list.

  24. Nymeth, you know I bought this book weeks ago, but still have not picked it up. I'm picking it up today because of you! You know what's funny? When I read the summary of the book before I bought it, I thought of you. =)

  25. I can't begin to put into words how fantastic I thought your review was!! I've marked this book to read because I've read a host of great reviews on it, not to mention the awards it has been nominated for and YA is a favorite of mine. Do you write for a living? You should...your writing is magical!!

    Excellent review!!!

  26. My favorite line of your post: "This is the book I will henceforth shove down the throats of people who dismiss fantasy, who dismiss YA." A little violent, huh?? :) Actually, when I was reading your review, all I could think about was--when is the Once Upon a Time challenge starting?

  27. I can't read your review yet since my copy just came in at the library!! I'm hoping to fit it in soon, while I wait for The Grey King to arrive....I'll come back to this one when I have read it :-D your review looks fabulous as ever!!

  28. Given the cover I wasn't really expecting this review (sorry, I haven't heard of Lanagan yet). I was sure it was fantasy (given that the bear seemed to be protecting the little girl). Oh but other than that I was surprised by the content! With this post I'll add her to my "Authors-Nymeth-Is-So-Passionate-About-I-Can't-Go-Wrong-Buying-Them" list.

    This is a first-rate review of a first-rate book. I'm glad that you read a lot of books and share them with the rest of us mere mortals :)

  29. Hi Nymeth, I definitely would like to read this. I'm putting it into my wishlist. Thanks for the excellent review. The quotes touched me.

  30. Well, with an endorsement like that review, how could I not read it?

  31. Well this one isn't going to last on the TBR pile very long, now is it ;) It sounds so fantastic...like one of those books that you just want to share with everyone! Ooooh, I can't wait to discover it for myself. And I totally agree that the cover is amazing.

  32. I am glad you liked. I don't know if I could read this one as it sounds so sad. I will put it on my list and keep it for when I feel stronger. Thanks for telling me about my comments. I had no idea they were not working.

  33. this sounds very moving and a beautiful use of fairy tale.

    fairy tales are often well used in our modern day but quite often the surrounding modern context is merely a means to an end, an introduction or a framing for the fairy tale.

    this is by no means a bad thing, but when the fairy tale is so strongly anchored to the modern world - when the fairy tale evolves out of the modern context organically, that makes for a stronger fusion, sometimes more believability and often a more moving experience.

    thats why i like the sound of this - the strong link between the real world context and the fairy tale. and the strong need for the fairy tale element in the story - not just cause the writer fancied it.

    thanks for the beautiful review.

  34. Iliana: You said it well...it left me raw, but not in a bad way. It's a stunning book.

    Becky, I hope you do get to it soon! I'd love to hear your take on it.

    Darla: Exactly! And de Lint is indeed another good example. I promise this book also won't make you want to slit your wrists. More likely it will make you want to give your family a hug, and sit in the sunshine with your eyes closed, and appreciate everything that is so wonderful about life.

    Kailana: Indeed we do! Great minds think alike :P

    priscilla: It is..it really is. I hope you love it if you decide to pick it up.

    verbatim: Thank you so much. I can't tell you how happy your comment made me. I struggled when writing this post, but that's just what I wanted to do...convince people to give it a chance.

    Melody: It's very bittersweet, and powerful, and beautiful. One of a kind, really.

    Ladytink: Snow White and Rose Red? Or the abuse? Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which is a retelling of Donkeyskin, is also about a girl abused by her father.

    Chris: It is sad, but ultimately uplifting.

  35. Vasilly: I had a feeling I was going to love this book the moment I heard of it. I just didn't know I'd love it THIS much. I hope you do too!

    Staci, you're much too kind. Sadly I don't, but I wish I did :P

    Trish: lol! That came out mean, didn't it? I didn't mean it quite as harshly :P I completely understand and respect the fact that some people don't much like fantasy and/or YA. It's the ones that go "oh, it's all trash, how can any self-respecting adult read it, bla bla bla" that get to me. You know, people who make those "I thought you were smart" comments I told you about before :P Anyway, I think the challenge will start on the 21st of March, and this is indeed perfect for it!

    Susan my dear, I hope you love it!

    Lightheaded: I didn't actually know what the book was going to be about either. Only that a)Neil had loved it b) it had an awesome cover and c) it was based on Snow White and Rose Red. And lol! I have a mental list of Authors-Lightheaded-Is-So-Passionate-About-I-Can't-Go-Wrong-Buying-Them too :D And pfff, mere mortals. I'm one of you too! I wish I weren't, though, so I could spend eternity reading great books :P

    Alice: They're very touching, aren't they? The book made me cry so many times.

    Ali: I hope you enjoy it!

    Chris: Yes, don't leave it on the tbr for long! I really think you'll fall in love with it.

    Scrap Girl: It's sad, but it's really as sweet as it is sad. And I'm glad the comments are working again!

    JP, thank you! I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but you're right, that's part of what makes this book so powerful. All the magic is much more than ornamental. It's, like you put it, organic. There would be no other way of telling this story.

  36. This book sounds like it could be very depressing, but since you assure us that the touchy elements are dealt with carefully and respectfully I really think I am going to put this one on my list. I think this would be an interesting and thought provoking read.

  37. Love the cover and the title both. While I'm hesitant as I'm not too keen on incest themes, I think I trust you, too, when you say it's not depressing. I think the cover helps a lot in depicting a magical air to it. Also I love George Eliot, even if I've only read one book by her (Silas Marner). If this was compared to her, then I might like it. Going on TBR.. thanks again, Nymeth! :D

  38. I like the book cover. This does sound interesting, glad you enjoyed it.
    I like that last quote you posted.
    Great review!


  39. Probably Snow White and Rose Red but that McKinley book sounds familiar.

  40. It's a wonderful review - I really enjoyed it and it made me think about the book (which I also enjoyed and reviewed very briefly) and other books in new ways. Thankyou!

  41. I've read some of Lanagan's short stories. Loved Black Juice, and this looks really great. Last time I tried to find it it wasn't out over here yet. But on my next splurge I'll be hunting for it again.

  42. Nicola, I hope you enjoy it!

    Zibilee: I don't think they could have been handled any better. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

    Claire: It's an uncomfortable theme to read about, but the book is so worth it. And I need to read some Eliot!

    Naida: The last one is my absolute favourite :)

    Ladytink: I know I've read the original fairy tale, but it was so long ago I don't remember the details well. I should read it again!

    tanaudel: Thank you so much for your kind yours!

    Fence: I need to get my hands on Black Juice asap. I want to read everything she's written!

  43. Wow, you liked it then?

    I've enjoyed Lanagan's short stories, this is her first novel and I will make sure I read it thanks to your review. I can see from her blog she's pretty stoked about it too!

  44. Wow! A great review you gave. I am going to put this book on my TBR list based on your review...that you liked it. The subject matter sounds horrid but I am going to give it a try...you are passionate about this book and that alone intrigues me to read it.

  45. Sarag: Yep, you could say I liked it :P I need to get my hands on her short stories collection next!

    ibeeeg: yay! It makes me happy to hear you'll give it a chance.

  46. Another one for the TBRpile. I've always enjoyed books that tackle difficult topics but manage to be written in a beautiful (maybe gentle is the word I'm looking for) way. Loved the passage you included, thanks for the terrific review.

  47. I swear i must be the only person who didn't like this one. oh well. Glad you found it worthwhile!

  48. A lovely cover, this is going straight on my list for sure. It sounds like just my thing.

  49. Just up and reviewed this one... plus I stole one of your quotes because I liked it better than any others I found!



Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.