Friday, May 28, 2010

Tough Morsels

I can understand, to a point, . . . that you were allowed to take two tiny children there. But how you managed to keep them there for so long, as they grew, is more of a mystery, for they did not belong there. Urdda did the natural thing and returned to life in search of her true future; Branza ought to have done the same. It is a great misshapement of things that she stayed so long - until the age of twenty-five! She has not had enough of a true life to even conceive of her own heart's desire. To spend her whole life within yours - tut! That is no kind of existence.

Most fairy tales have very dark undercurrents. Behind the magic and happily-ever-after there is murder, abuse, abandonment, and the macabre. Cinderella's stepsisters cut off parts of their feet to fit into the glass slipper. Hansel and Gretel are thrown out by the house by their stepmother and captured by a witch who fattens Hansel up for the oven. In one of the Grimm brothers' lesser-known tales, the Devil forces a man to chop off his beloved daughter's hands.

Although most of these fairy tales have been sanitized for modern children (particularly by Disney), their original versions are creatively fertile ground. The layers of allegory and symbolism, the cultural anxieties (for example, witches, wicked stepmothers, and female power), and elements of the fantastic have provided inspiration for countless scholars, writers, filmmakers, and artists, and will doubtlessly do so for the next several hundred years. Viewed through mature eyes, fairy tales can be surreal and frightening - a weird blend of innocence and horror. The image of beautiful, young Snow White fleeing into the dark woods from a huntsman who's been commanded to kill her and cut out her heart is a haunting one. (The huntsman brings the evil Queen the heart of a boar instead, and she devours it, thinking it was stepdaughter's.)

Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, a contemporary YA novel, is a feminist attempt to re-imagine the classic fairy tale form and focus on its symbolic and psychological aspects. In the beginning we have Liga, a poor, motherless teen abused by her father (as opposed to the clichéd and misogynist "wicked stepmother"). He is killed in an accident shortly after impregnating her for the second time, which results in Branza. While Branza is still an infant, Liga is gang-raped by a band of young men from the town. Her subsequent attempt to kill both herself and her child is interrupted by a "moon babby" who whisks Liga and Branza away to another world, a safe haven fashioned by Liga's own mind. Here she will give birth to Urdda, a product of the rape, and raise both daughters in a fantasy land where nothing bad ever happens, animals are gentle and fun-loving, and other humans are one-dimensional props. But reality eventually finds its way in, and the two sheltered girls may not be prepared for the "savage garden" that awaits them.

Tender Morsels is a story of trauma, coping mechanisms, sexuality, and the uneven relationship between men and women. Liga's literal and figurative withdrawal from the world threatens to suffocate her daughters and stunts her own emotional growth. Intruding on her hiding place are men in the form of bears, which represents a carnal nature that preys on female morsels. Magic is real and witches are benevolent. In fact, this make-believe power of magic is the only power women are able to wield in their own right, which speaks to the difficulties faced by real-life women in patriarchal societies. Overall, the premise of Tender Morsels is a good one, and I came into this book expecting to enjoy it.

Alas, that was not to be. I agree with Richard that the 432-page story is just way too long. The second half spends too much time in the real world when the focus should have been on the supernatural. Fairy tales are quick and to the point, and Tender Morsels comes across as a fairy tale stretched past its limit. I'm thinking of something like Heart of Darkness or Carlos Fuentes's Aura or Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring, as novels that may be short but are also dark, rich, and deeply metaphorical. The reader is engulfed in the story but it ends before the atmosphere becomes stale and too much is revealed or explained. They're more intense that way. Tender Morsels could've easily lost about two hundred pages - spend less time on Bear Day, for instance, and the infodump from Miss Dance.

Plus, the dialect - i.e. "littlee-man" and bab/babby - is half-hearted and ridiculous.

I'm also bothered by Tender Morsels being categorized as Young Adult fiction (where my local library had it shelved) and marketed as such. (Frances, a children's librarian, has raised similar concerns.) Since I usually don't read YA, I'm not sure what, if any, limitations there are on teen literature. But still, this is a novel with incest, forced abortion, gang rape, sodomy, and borderline bestiality. I've read Henry Miller and William Burroughs and even I almost couldn't get past the rape scene (luckily, it's a fade-out) and was seriously weirded out by a certain episode involving Branza and a man-bear. I don't know if Margo Lanagan actually wrote this as YA or if that comes from the publisher, but I really feel that Tender Morsels would have been much better off as a book for adults. In fact, I think it would have stronger resonance with grown women who have children of their own.

In conclusion, I have to say that this book was a disappointment. I can see what Margo Lanagan was trying to do and it was a great idea, but she drags it out until it got to the point where I was just skimming. There is, however, one thing that one thing Lanagan did get right but which other reviewers have criticized her for.



It's the marriage at the end between Branza and David Ramstrong, one of the few good male characters. Liga was in love with him herself, but due to the disparity between the flow of time in the real world and the other-world, she is forty years old at the close of the story. In traditional societies, obviously, young men usually do not marry women old enough to be their mothers. Furthermore, as Emily noted, it's another illustration of how Liga's own coping mechanisms have damaged her life. She's spent so much time in Fantasy Land that she's missed out on a lot and nearly caused her daughters to do the same. I can understand why other readers objected, but not all fairy tales can have fairy-tale endings.



Alisa Libby's The Blood Confession sounds like another questionable YA fairy-tale revamp. It's based on the legend of Snow White and the real-life Countess Elizabeth Báthory, who liked to bathe in the blood of young girls to preserve her beauty. It actually does look like a compelling read, but not for the kids!

Since no one likes my music (*sigh*), I resisted posting Forever Slave's "In the Forest" here even though that song is just perfect for a story like Tender Morsels.

Tender Morsels was our Unstructured Group Read for the month of May. Please feel free to join us at any time! You can find a complete book list here.

Other May participants include:


Past selections:

April: Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual
March: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Re fairy tales having "fairy tale endings," I think that Nymeth convinced me that how one defines a "fairy tale ending" has a lot to do with socialization. So the fact that Liga ends up alone could be seen as sad, or as a triumph, depending....

Emily said...

I agree that this book would have been way stronger at half the length. I actually liked the Bear Day scenes, and theoretically I support the idea of not just ending the story when the three women are pulled out of their heaven and into the real world - of tracking their progress of acceptance. But in practice, the last half dragged and lost a lot of its allegorical concentration, not to mention narrative direction.

I also would have liked it much better if Miss Dance had been entirely absent. Or at least if she'd had a better name.

I still found quite a bit that was thought-provoking and resonant here, but was frustrated that a concept that could have been really excellent struck me instead as just mediocre. :-/

E. L. Fay said...

Rhapsody: I think it's more of a bittersweet ending. I brought it up because so many reviewers were disappointed that Lanagan ended up writing a blog post defending it. I thought that was an immature reaction on the reviewers' part.

Emily: Yes, Miss Dance could have been left out entirely. I like your idea that the book could've ended with Liga and her daughters re-entering the real world or only going a little bit further. I agree totally: the second half lost both the fairy tale aspect and the narrative direction. I'm honestly surprised that so many reviewers raved about this book! (Except for the ending.)

Frances said...

Agree completely with everything you wrote. Just shaking my head yes the entire post. As Emily noted, it could have been so much more but in the end was just mediocre. Also agree that one of those needed cuts should have been Miss Dance. And the next cuts should have been handed out generously in the second half. Sooo... on to Moo Pak.

JoAnn said...

I hardly ever read YA and don't really understand the criteria, but am just amazed that this can be classified as YA. Definitely not a book for me!

E. L. Fay said...

Near as I can tell, the only criteria is that the protagonists have to be teens. The Book Thief wasn't written as YA either and was marketed in Australia as adult literature. But here it's considered YA.

Matt said...

This one was suggested to me by a friend a while back but I never got around to it. I still intend to check it out sometime.

Richard said...

E.L. Fay, I agree with most of what you and Frances have to say. Therefore, great post! (Ha ha, just kidding about the reason.) I do have a question for you about the supposed feminism of the novel, though, since somebody else brought that issue up earlier as well: do you think this was a "good" example of feminism? In some ways, I saw it as more anti-male than pro-female (which is understandable to a point, given Liga's childhood, and the constant sexual threats to Liga's kids). I also question the "feminism" of Urdda's revenge given the character's claim not to have realized she was even responsible for it. Emily has a wonderful paragraph on this sequence in her post, but it seems to me like the recourse to fantasy undercuts a lot of the feminist message in this novel. I don't really care either way since I disliked the novel for multiple "artistic" reasons, but I wonder whether you or anybody else in the group see this as a positive example of a feminist text or just a text with some half-baked feminist shadings.

Sarah (tuulenhaiven) said...

Gosh yes, it could have been so much shorter! I read most of the book quickly, but the final 100 pages took me days and days to get through. Cripes. I too was disapointed with the book. Such a muddle.

E. L. Fay said...

Hi all.

I'll be going away for the weekend and will respond to the other comments when I get back.

Thanks for your patience.

Anonymous said...

Since I saw so many bloggers reading this book I've become very curious about it. I have to admit that reading all of the mixed reviews I'm a bit uncertain if I still should.

Also, I've been taking sneak peeks at the Non-Structured Book Group for a while now. I might have to give in and join you for one of those, if that's okay?

E. L. Fay said...

It's Monday and I'm back! No computer or Internet for three whole days! And so:

Matt: It would be interesting to get another male perspective on Tender Morsels. As Richard notes below you, it can arguably be called misandric. But be warned: it gets VERY long.

Richard: I agree that the portrayal of men, literally and figuratively, as beasts is potentially problematic. As you noted, however, it is understandable to a point, given Liga's background. The TM fantasy world, after all, literally is her fantasy, so "men as beasts" pretty much arises from the mind of a rape/incest victim who has had almost no experiences with men that weren't abusive. There's scene where she's thinking of the penis as simply a weapon that harms women's bodies. So if you look at it as simply the perception of a traumatized woman, this particular image of men makes sense.

But, that being said, I didn't get the impression that Lanagan interrogated that assumption (men = animal/bestial/carnal) much. Plus, we're never shown women behaving badly, even though that certainly does happen. While child molesters are almost always men, I read somewhere that most child abusers (physically, verbally, emotionally) are women. So there's nothing in TM to counterbalance that negative image of men. Women are always good, while only a few men are good.

Sarah: Me too! I did have some trouble getting past the gang rape scene (I didn't know it was going to be a fade-out). After that, the book went by quickly while they were in La-La Land. But then when they returned to the real world, it slowed down considerably, the narrative direction got lost, and it took me days to get through it.

Iris: Absolutely, do join in! The more the merrier!

Anonymous said...

EL, the premise is truly promising, more so the way you wrote about it. I stopped reading after 50+ pages because I couldn't stand hearing "bab" another time, lol! And she hadn't even given birth to the second bab then. After reading Emily's and yours though, I kind of want to skim around the fantasy world part now. Hmm.. until I get really annoyed with her writing again. I just didn't gel with the writing at all, which is sad because I love fantasy. :( What I love best about your post is your point on fairy tales being creatively fertile ground. If only it were written better.

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