I’m a sucker for books that are retellings of fairy tales. I really love them. When I saw how much Nymeth and Eva liked Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan’s retelling of “Snow White, Rose Red,” I was entranced. I also happened to read it at roughly the same time as the Unstructured Book Club, so at the time that it was in my bag, it seemed to be everywhere. I fully expected to love it. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
** I plan to discuss this book’s plot and themes in detail, so if you haven’t read it and don’t want spoilers, you can read the next paragraph, the summary, but you might not want to read the whole review.**
Tender Morsels is the story of Liga, a victim of paternal incest, repeated forced miscarriages, and a gang rape by local boys who attack her after her father’s unexpected death frees her from the abuse. She has one daughter, Branza, by her father, and she is expecting another from the rape when she decides to take her own life. A mysterious force saves her and the two babies from suicide, and sends her to an alternate world of safety that erases all her painful realities: there are no rough men here, no alcohol, no currency, and most of all no gossip about how her two daughters came to be. Liga brings Branza and Urdda up in this world, safe and peaceful despite the occasional incursion of wild bears and men, until a rift opens for Urdda to the “real” world and invites the women to return to reality and all that implies: emotion, love, and the possibility of a broken heart or a painfully joyful one.
I’ll start out by saying that most of this book is likable enough. I liked the fairy-tale structure, because I always do, and Lanagan writes well; there are moments of tenderness and humor that stand out and are really quite lovely. I also liked Bear Day, and the descriptions of it. I feel she got that just right. For the most part, however, I found myself deeply uneasy with the book’s theme and message. I’ve tried to narrow it down to the main things I had trouble with.
I used to have a friend who had suffered terrible abuse. She was orphaned, she suffered in the foster care system, and she went through the most abusive marriage I’ve ever heard of, even in horror fiction. And then, after she’d escaped, other things went wrong for her, too: illness, loss, car wrecks. I used to tell her jokingly that the only thing that hadn’t happened to her was being thrown into a live volcano. “Just wait,” she’d say.
There is something of that feeling to Tender Morsels. This book portrays one loss after another after another, one psychological and physical trauma following the next. I think we are supposed to feel, as Liga does, that she is safe once she reaches her “heaven,” but on the contrary the losses continue: beloved characters enter the picture and then leave, for no real reason (Bear, Wolf, the she-bear). More and more loss, and why? It’s clear that the townspeople are not trustworthy friends and neighbors, but frightening mockeries of real people, with blankness behind their eyes. Liga feels continually that she does not deserve her happiness, and must earn it. In this world, whether it’s the real one or “heaven,” all joy is false and all loss is real. Lanagan is better at portraying pain, dismay, and even boredom than she is at portraying happiness and certainly than she is at portraying joy. This is not an uncommon problem, but it throws the book far out of balance.
It also gives no incentive whatsoever to return to the “real” world. The message (carefully outlined for us in a lengthy moralizing passage by a witch, Miss Dance, who is unfortunately not the only deus ex machina in this book) seems to be that Liga, Branza and Urdda are real people, designed to live in the real world, and they must take their chances with pain and joy like the rest of us. My friend did so. She stayed alive for love, and even when she had to leave for her safety, she knew that friendship, work, kids, and nature can give back some of what other people have taken away. But Lanagan doesn’t show this. She tells it to us — Miss Dance tells us, in her kind, no-nonsense style — but she never shows it, never shows Liga gaining satisfaction or happiness from her new life. Instead, she shows us more loss: of daughters, lovers, homes. Sexual trauma is something either to be lived down and forgotten, or avenged, not understood and transformed. (And are we supposed to find that vengeance satisfying, or, God forbid, funny?)
As Emily points out in her post, part of the problem with this book is that the only first-person sections are in the voice of the men: the dwarf (“littlee-man,” the dialect misfires badly at times) or Davit Ramstrong, for instance. The women, with whom we spend most of our time, are third-person. This muffles their presence, their voice, their emotions. When the pace of the book is jerky or there are loose ends (what happened to the moon-babby? Who or what was Wolf?) or there’s yet another shock of death or departure, we get the loss at a distance, and it’s as if we’re in Liga’s heaven: we start to be numb. We stop caring.
I saw several reviews complaining about the ending of the book. To be honest, I didn’t mind the idea that Liga didn’t find her one true love; the death of Davit’s wife (one of the few really sympathetic characters) was far too abrupt and convenient, and I would have found their marriage distasteful for more than one reason. But the marriage of Branza and Davit was just as bad. There was nothing showing their love building, and more than one piece of evidence that it was a slim relationship even at the end. So there was no sense of rightness or closure, just more loss for Liga, for no solid reason. I guess she didn’t deserve her heaven after all.
Overall, I felt this book was shallow, but not shallow enough to enjoy; simplistic, but not in the right way. At least I cared enough about it to finish it, and to be this disappointed. And A., if you’re reading, I miss you.