Title: Tender Morsels
Author: Margo Lanagan
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Knopf Young Adult (US) / David Fickling Books (UK)
Publication Date: October 1998 (US) / July 2009 (UK)
Hardcover: 448 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
Why did I read this book: Tender Morsels has achieved a lot of buzz online – not only has it been nominated for a number of SFF awards, it also seems to stir up some controversy concerning its Young Adult label. So, when offered a copy of Margo Lanagan’s novel, of course I accepted! I had to see for myself what exactly this fairy tale retelling was all about…
Summary: (from amazon.com)
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?
Tender Morsels has me stumped. On the one hand, it is a lushly written novel about horrible things, and I can only marvel at Ms. Lanagan’s storytelling skills and her ability to craft such a beautifully cruel fable. On the other, I have to admit that while this book was powerful and well done, I didn’t like it. It’s with these contradictory emotions that I set out and attempt to write this review, so please, bear with me (bad pun, apologies).
This provocative young adult novel is a retelling of the brothers Grimm collected fable of Snow White and Rose Red – which is not to be confused with the other Grimm Snow White (of the wicked sorceress queen, seven dwarves and poison apples). In Snow White and Rose Red, two sisters are raised by an impoverished widow in a wooded cottage. One winter’s night, a bear knocks on their cottage door and the family invites him in, beating the snow from his thick fur and accepting him as a dear friend for every night that winter. There’s also a dwarf in this tale, who gets himself stuck in strange situations by his glorious, long white beard. The two girls help free the dwarf time and time again, but he is ever ungrateful for their meddling. The last time the girls see the dwarf, the bear is with them – and the dwarf, enraged and terrified tries to flee the hulking, angry beast. The bear eats the dwarf and thus breaks the evil enchantment that has been placed on him, for the bear is actually an ensorcelled prince, transformed into the guise of a bear after the dwarf stole his gold. Snow White marries the Prince, and Rose Red marries his brother – and they all live happily ever after.
Margo Lanagan’s take on the fable is decidedly less happy. In the outskirts of a small town, Liga Longbourne lives alone with her father, who rapes and abuses her. Liga, completely estranged from the outside world under her father’s strict rule, endures this isolated, terrible life until her thirteenth year when she realizes the painful thing she’s expelling from her body is a stillborn baby. After two forced abortions from her father’s remedies (courtesy of the local mudwitch), Liga decides to hide her latest pregnancy, desperate for a companion of her own. When her father suddenly dies in an accident, she finds herself completely alone for the first time in her life, and gives birth to a beautiful, healthy and fair complexioned baby girl. Unfortunately for Liga, five town boys have seen her – without a man, with child, and therefore fair game – and they brutally rape her in her cottage. Unable to take any more cruel reality, Liga tries to kill her innocent child as an act of mercy, and then kill herself – but she’s stopped by an act of magic. To spare Liga the cold, unfair world she has lived in, the magic grants her an alternate reality where she can raise her daughters – for the gang rape has left her pregnant once more – in safety and peace. Everyone in Liga’s new world is kind and understanding, from the townspeople to the animals, and for many years she and her two daughters, the elder Branza (for her fair complexion and mild manners) and younger Urdda (for her dark coloring and wildness) live a happy, sheltered life.
Of course, things can never stay so picturesque forever. A greedy dwarf with the help of the same mudwitch of Liga’s past creates holes into Liga’s paradise world, gathering and stealing treasures to make him rich in the ‘real world’. Through the tears he has made between worlds, a man dressed as a Bear for the town’s ceremonial night stumbles through to Liga’s cottage, only he has transformed into a true Bear. “Bear” becomes a cherished friend to Liga and her two toddler daughters, and in turn, Bear falls in love with the kind and gentle mother. But one summer day, Bear disappears, stumbling back into the real world on the same night that he had disappeared, as though his time in Liga’s world has been a dream. Urdda, headstrong and eager for her own adventure, later follows the path that Bear took and years later is able to find a more powerful witch to bring Liga and Branza to her in the real world – and once again, Liga must confront the cold reality of the world she has left behind, and the consequences of raising her daughters in a dream land.
As you can see, Tender Morsels is a far cry from a bedtime story of beautiful princesses, fairy rainbows and kindred animals. Within the first 100 pages, incest, rape, and child abuse are brutally inflicted on young Liga, heroine of this novel. Some readers may take issue with the heavy subject matter, but I did not, especially since Ms. Lanagan handles this well without sensationalizing or going into graphic detail. The harsh truth is that incest, abuse and rape are realities that many young adults and teens experience, and Ms. Lanagan tackles these realities in a bold, effective way. Similarly, the quality of writing in Tender Morsels is undeniably strong. Each of the characters speaks in a unique dialect, and Ms. Lanagan’s prose is lush and evocative, conveying both beauty and pain in equal measure. More than that, Ms. Lanagan writes characters with an acute understanding of their emotions and dreams, crafting a cast that thrums with life.
When a girl of fourteen wants a thing – when she has wanted it all her conscious life; when she senses it near and bends all her hope, and all her will, and all her power to it – sometimes, sometimes her self and her desires will be of such material that worlds will move for her. Or parts of worlds, their skins particularly, will soften to her pressure, and break in a thousand small and undramatic ways, so that she may reach through, so that what seemed a wall reveals itself to be only thought of a wall, or a wall constructed of bricks of smoke, mortared with mist. There is a smell to such workings, and Urdda smelled it here and now at the rim of the bear-scent, as if someone had held a flaming brand near that bear-fur so that it began to singe and smoke and reek.
No, I certainly cannot fault Tender Morsels for any deficiency in writing – for it is a beautifully crafted story.
But, at the end of the day, for all the beauty of Ms. Lanagan’s writing and for the rich and believable characters she creates with the weary Liga, the innocent Branza and the headstrong Urdda, I simply could not like the story I was reading.
I’m of the firm belief that no subject matter is “inappropriate” for teens, or for any literature, for that matter. The weighty issues that begin Tender Morsels are not the reason why I could not connect with this book. Rather, my emotional limbo is mostly a product of two main factors – the question of stereotyping, and the question of cruelty.
First, there’s the question of stereotyping. Of the two daughters, Branza is the Snow White character – she’s pale and fair, beautiful, gentle and completely meek. Branza loves her mother’s dream world, she never causes any trouble, she’s friend to all animals, and she’s completely mild and agreeable. Then, there’s Urdda, the Rose Red character. In contrast to her fair, perfect sister, Urdda is dark complexioned (it is mentioned earlier in the book that one of the boys who gang raped Liga is a foreigner whose face looks “sooted”), and temperamental, and altogether wildness personified. She’s also the selfish sister, the one who demands to know answers and who brings her family out from their quiet, protected dream world. This dichotomy of the fair skinned diligent good girl, against the dark skinned, willful wild girl bothers me. It’s a stereotype as old as the fairy tale Tender Morsels is retelling, but translates poorly at least to me, as a reader. Branza, the white, the untainted and the dutifully unquestioning is rewarded, while Urdda with her dusky complexion and demanding, inquisitive nature is the one who suffers because of her wildness. And this too blends into my next reason for discomfort with the novel:
There’s also the question of cruelty. Not the rape and other acts inflicted upon Liga – but rather the cruelty that the author inflicts on her in the last third of the book. I could argue that the entire last third or so of the book is completely unnecessary, as this is where the book fell apart (for me). Liga is the protagonist of the story. It is with Liga’s struggles that we begin Tender Morsels, and it is by her strength in raising two girls born of horrible, unspeakable circumstances that the novel takes root and blossoms. But in the ending of the book, I cannot help but feel that a cruelty of the greatest, most unforgivable kind is enforced on Liga as a character, for purposes of literary shock value. I do not wish to explicitly spoil, but simply will say that by the end of the novel, I felt betrayed and emotionally exploited. I’m all for bittersweet stories or those with unhappy endings, but this ending was unnecessary and reenforced my discomfort with character stereotypes. Liga, for all that she has been through and endured for her daughters is still tainted, broken Liga. Her untouched daughters – especially the dutiful and pure as snow Branza – are the ones who receive the happy ending.
So, I’m at a loss to truly assign a grade or rate to Tender Morsels. The book is unquestionably powerful and well-written, but certain facets of the story left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. While I did not particularly like this book and will not in all likelihood read it again, I feel like I accomplished something by reading it. And I encourage others to give it a try, to form your own opinions.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Here’s the official excerpt, from the first chapter:
Liga’s father fiddled with the fire, fiddled and fiddled. Then he stood up, very suddenly.
“I will fetch more wood.”
What’s he angry about? Liga wondered. Or worried, or something. He is being very odd.
Snow-light rushed in, chilling the house. Then he clamped the door closed and it was cozy again, cozy and empty of him. Liga took a deep private breath then blew it out, slowly. Just these few moments would be her own.
But her next breath caught rough in her throat. She opened her eyes. Gray smoke was cauliflowering out of the fireplace, fogging the air. The smell! What unnamable rubbish had fallen in the fire?
She coughed so hard she must put aside the rush mat she was binding the edge of and give her whole body over to the coughing. Then pain caught her, low, and folded her just like a rush-stalk, it felt, in a line across her belly, crushing her innards. She could hardly get breath to cough. Sparks that were not from the fire jiggled and swam in her eyes—she could not see the fire for the smoke. She could not believe what she was feeling.
The pain eased just as abruptly. It let her get up. It gave her a moment to stagger to the door and open it, her insides dangerous, liquid, hot with surprise and readying to spasm again.
Her father was halfway back from the woodpile, his arms full. He bared his teeth at her, no less. “What you doing out?” White puffs came with the words. “Get back inside. Who said you could come out?”
“I cannot breathe in there.” The cold air dived down her throat and she coughed again.
“Then go in and don’t breathe! Shut the door—you’re letting the smoke out. You’re letting the heat.” He dropped the wood in the snow.
“Has the chimney fallen in? Or what is it?” She wanted to step farther out and look.
But he sprang over the logs and ran at her. She was too surprised to fight him, and her insides were too delicate. The icicled edge of the thatch swept down across the heavy sky, and she was on the floor, the door slammed closed above her. It was dark after the snow-glare, the air thick with the billowing smoke. Outside, he shouted—she could not hear the words—and hurled his logs one by one at the door.
She pressed her nose and mouth into the crook of her elbow, but she had already gulped smoke. It sank through to her deepest insides, and there it clasped its thin black hands, all knuckles and nerves, and wrung them, and wrung them.
Time stretched and shrank. She seemed to stretch and shrink. The pain pressed her flat, the crashing of the wood. Da muttered out there, muttered forever; his muttering had begun before her thirteen years had, and she would never hear the end of it; she must simply be here while it rose from blackness and sank again like a great fish into a lake, like a great water snake. Then Liga’s belly tightened again, and all was gone except the red fireworks inside her. The smoke boiled against her eyes and fought in her throat.
The pains resolved themselves into a movement, of innards wanting to force out. When she next could, she crawled to the door and threw her fists, her shoulder, against it. Was he out there anymore? Had he run off and left her imprisoned? “Let me out or I will shit on the floor of your house!”
There was some activity out there, scraping of logs, thuds of them farther from the door. White light sliced into the smoke. Out Liga blazed, in a dirty smoke-cloud, clambering over the tumbled wood, pushing past him, pushing past his eager face.
But it was too late for the cold, clean air to save her; her insides had already come loose. She could not run or she would shake them out. Already they were drooling down her legs. She must clamp her thighs together to hold them in, and yet walk, and yet hurry, to the part of the forest edge they used for their excrements.
She did not achieve it. She fell to her knees in the snow. Inside her skirt, so much of her boiling self fell away that she felt quite undone below the waist, quite shapeless. No, look: sturdy hips. Look: a leg on either side. A blue-gray foot there, the other there. Gingerly, Liga sat back in a crouch to lift her numbing knees off the snow. The black trees towered in front of her, and the snow dazzled all around. She heaved and brought up nothing but spittle, but more of her was pushed out below by the heaving.
She crouched, panting. From her own noises she knew she had become some kind of animal; she had fallen as low as she could from the life she had had before Mam died. Everything had slid from there, out of prosperity, out of town, out of safety, when Mam went, and this was where of course it ended, with Liga an animal in the snow, tearing herself to pieces with the wrongness of everything.
With one last heave, her remaining insides dropped out of her. She knelt over their warmth, folded herself down, and waited to die.
But she did not die there. The snow pained against her forehead and her knees, and the fallen mass of her innards began to lose its heat in the tent of her skirt.
She tried to lift herself off it. At first her knees would not unbend, so she tipped herself forward onto her front . . . paws, they felt like, her front claws. And hoisted her bottom up from there.
“Oh, my Gracious Lady.” Her voice sounded drunken and flat. Between pink footprints, her innards lay glossy and dark red. Her feet were purple, blotched yellow, weak and wet with melting pink snow.
She should go back to the house—that was all she knew. And so she labored towards it, top-heavy, slick-thighed, numb-footed, and hollow, glancing behind as if afraid the thing would follow her, along its own pink trail.
Da snatched the door open as soon as she touched it. He stood there, hands on hips. “What’s a-matter with you?” The air around him was clear and warm; in the crook of his arm, the fire flowed brightly up around the new logs. Would he even let her in?
Additional Thoughts: Though less known than its Disney-popular character of the same name, the tale of Snow White and Rose Red is making some appearances in the literary world. First, there’s the more easygoing retelling from young adult author Patricia C. Wrede (whose Enchanted Forrest novels were some of my favorites as young reader), titled Snow White and Rose Red:
Snow White and Rose Red live on the edge of the forest that conceals the elusive border of Faerie. They know enough about Faerie lands and mortal magic to be concerned when they find two human sorcerers setting spells near the border. And when the kindly, intelligent black bear wanders into their cottage some months later, they realize the connection between his plight and the sorcery they saw in the forest. This romantic version of the classic fairy tale features an updated introduction by its editor, Terri Windling.
And, of course, there’s the brilliant re-imagining of the two sisters in Bill Willingham’s ongoing comic book, Fables.
You can check out our Joint Review of Fables Volume 1: Legends In Exile HERE. (And though I haven’t reviewed all the current graphic novels and issues, rest assured, they are wonderful)
Verdict: On an intellectual level, on an aesthetic level, Tender Morsels is a beautiful gem of a novel. It’s written well with compelling characters, and with an original take on an old fable. For that alone, I would give the novel an 8. But as for a deeper, emotional experience? I could not bring myself to like this novel, and certain simplistic stereotypes as well as the unnecessary cruelty of the ending left me feeling hollow and exploited as a reader. Going with my gut, I’d give the book an emotional rating of a 4. So where does that leave me and the novel?
I’m cheating and including both ratings – and I strongly encourage all readers to give Tender Morsels a read and to form your own opinions. I’d be delighted to read your thoughts on this provocative novel.
Rating: 8 – Excellent for the writing; 4 – Horrible for the emotional exploitation.
Reading Next: The Devouring and Soulstice by Simon Holt