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
Six Boxes of Books
Books & Other Thoughts
Bottle of Shine
A Comfy Chair and a Good Book
A Striped Armchair
The Zen Leaf
books i done read
Fyrefly's Book Blog
My Fluttering Heart
dreaming out loud
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.