I’m participating in the Worlds Without End reading challenge of 2013. Last year, it was all about the Science Fiction Grand Masters, this year it is about Women of Genre Fiction – and I must say, I already picked up a few books that I had planned to read but that probably would have been forgotten for another year or two were it not for this challenge. There are great recommendations on their site (and you can track your progress on all the lists or award winners you’re reading). I am so happy to have discovered Margo Lanagan, an amazing writer that I won’t soon forget.
Published by: Ember, 2010 (2008)
ebook: 464 pages
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: There are plenty would call her a slut for it.
Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?
I grew up on fairy tales. They were my very first contact with stories. I used to listen to Grimms’ fairy tales on cassette (yeah, I’m old enough for that) and I knew them all by heart – and would tell them to my entire family – by the age of four. Snow White and Rose Red was never my favorite but I still associate strong memories and vivid pictures with the tale. Margo Lanagan put quite a twisted spin on the old story and completely blew me away.
The story opens on a dark scene. Liga, a girl of only 13 years, lives with her father, a dominant and moody man, who controls her entire life. It takes about two pages to figure out what is actually going on in that little hut where he keeps his daughter, away from the village. While never saying it out loud, we get the idea that Liga is being raped by her father on a regular basis. When we meet her, she is already broken, body and soul, and there seems no way out of her vicious cycle. This dark opening was as surprising as it was fascinating. It made me severely uncomfortable and yet left me in awe for the writer’s talent for evoking emotion.
Not all is bad in Liga’s life. After years of terror and ordeal, she has two daughters and can finally make a calm life for herself. Branza, the shy and serene one, and Urdda, excited and curious, grow up happy and loving each other and their mother dearly. In their happy little haven, everything is well, until the threshold to the real world starts to blur and bears start appearing. The girls befriend the bears but at least Urdda longs to find that other place where her animal friend has come from.
This is a tale of three amazing women, their suffering and how they each eventually heal. Darkness permeates the entire book and while the beginning was certainly among the most terrifying and disturbing things I have ever read, there is always some beauty to it. Margo Lanagan’s language is clear and sinister and evocative. She retells the old and well-known fairytale and keeps many of its key moments intact. At the same time, she breathes new life into it. Liga, Branza, and Urdda’s life in the forest may be a quiet part but it is never boring.
I love when authors who write for young people trust their readers to be smart. Margo Lanagan doesn’t always spell everything out for you, but her characters and powerful imagery stand for themselves. She also doesn’t shrink back from exploring darker themes in a YA novel. A young girl’s budding sexuality, rape, allusions to beastiality, and more rape – it is not a happy book when you start reading. But it turns into a beautiful tale if you stick with it. And the ending was as melancholy as it was perfect.
THE GOOD: A dark twist on an old fairytale, told in beautiful language and with three fantastic women to root for.
THE BAD: The slower middle-part may not be for everyone, as I’m sure many people will object to (or not want to stomach) the darker scenes.
THE VERDICT: This is what I’ve always hoped for in a fairy tale retelling. Strong, many-layered protagonists, magic around every corner, and a price to pay for every spell.
RATING: 9/10 Nearly perfect