Tender Morsels

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.

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18 Responses to Tender Morsels

  1. Kathy says:

    What a great review! I haven’t read this book, but it sounds like I wouldn’t like it any more than you did. I assume, since you like retellings of fairytales, you have read some Gregory Maguire and Shannon Hale? (If not, you should!) ;)

    • Jenny says:

      I have read Wicked, but I haven’t tried Shannon Hale. Thanks for the recommendation!

      • Kathy says:

        I liked Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister better than Wicked–you ought to give that one a try! And as for Hale–I really enjoyed Princess Academy (which is a new fairytale instead of a retelling of an old one, but Hale’s writing is so sweet and quaint and perfect for the genre), and she has a 4-book series of which I’ve read and enjoyed the first two–The Goose Girl is a fairytale retelling, and Enna Burning takes one of the supporting characters and tells her story. Those Hale books are all for younger readers but they’re still excellent.

      • Jenny says:

        Kathy, thanks so much for this list of recommendations — I will definitely think about the Hale, especially when I’m in the mood for something a little lighter (I’m tackling Proust this summer and may need a break!)

  2. Emily says:

    I also had major issues with the “vengeance” part of the plot, and how the reader is supposed to feel about it. In the addendum to my edition there was an interview with Lanagan in which she implies that it is supposed to be “satisfying” for the reader, which is pretty disturbing to me. And it’s also pretty disturbing that Urdda wakes up afterward feeling “no way in particular” about the knowledge that so much brutality exists in the world, was done to her mother, and brought her into the world. It rang very false to me that doing violence to other people (and not even consciously at that) would bring her so much resolution – and more than resolution, would inure her to such cruel facts about the world. I mean, it’s one thing to enact revenge & then feel some degree of closure (though hardly reliable), but quite another to no longer CARE about what happened, or about the potential for other, similar things elsewhere.

    I did connect more than you & Frances with the idea that it’s worthwhile to return to the real world, and I think Lanagan did an OK job showing what makes it worthwhile (rich, complex friendships, being part of a community – both of which Liga does eventually get in the latter part of the book, although we’re told more than shown that). But I agree that the portrayals of Branza & Urdda’s paths were overly facile, and the Davit/Branza relationship basically nonexistent.

    Ah well. What especially frustrated me is that there moments & setups that seemed so resonant with potential, but then they fell short.

    • Jenny says:

      Emily, this is part of what I disliked about the vengeance element. How is adding more sexual brutality to the world supposed to help bring closure to sexual brutality? This seems to me to be part of our rape culture, that lack of affect when someone we don’t love is raped.

      I can’t say I felt that Liga connected with a community. She was still so wary that she connected almost exclusively with Annie and the Ramstrongs. Still, there is a degree of nuance there.

  3. rebeccareid says:

    Oh my, this does not sound like a book I could handle…

    • Jenny says:

      Rebecca, I almost gave up on this book in the first 60 pages, which is when most of the sexual violence occurs. I thought, she’s gotta be kidding. But no.

  4. amymckie says:

    Yikes. I thought this had looked good, but from your review it really does seem like it lacks balance. I would expect to see some kind of transformation, and why don’t the women have a voice in the story? Not so sure I’ll be rushing out for this one any time soon.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I was disappointed. There are many, many good fairy-tale retellings/ fairy stories out there. Read them instead!

  5. EL Fay says:

    In Frances’s review she stated that part of the problem was a confusion over the intended audience. TM is too intense for most of the YA crowd but not deep and probing enough for adults. I totally agree – all the time I was reading this I felt that something was off but I just couldn’t explain it.

    RE: Urdda’s revenge – I didn’t think of this until just now, but I remember the prose used to describe it as very whimsical and almost playful. Did you pick up on that too? The tone and the actions are completely out of sync.

    • Jenny says:

      You know, I didn’t comment on the YA issue because my edition was shelved as fantasy (not YA) in my library, and nowhere on the book does it say it’s a YA book, so I didn’t have that problem. I think that YA novels can be as challenging and deep as adult novels — try Sonya Hartnett! — but this one wasn’t.

      Good call on the whimsical tone of the revenge element. For sexual brutality, it was completely inappropriate.

  6. Jenny says:

    Proper Jenny, I am kind of relieved you didn’t like this. I deeply don’t want to read it, but bloggers whose taste I respect and trust keep loving on it with much love. Seeing a negative review or two feels like getting permission not to read it. I just can’t face all the violence and upsettingness (I keep picking the book up at the library and setting it back down again). It’s nice to see a review that found aforementioned violence somewhat pointless.

    • Jenny says:

      Other Jenny, you should definitely not feel obliged to read this. It’s not like it’s Deathless Prose and just full of violence, either, like Beloved or something. It’s reasonably written but only okay. The beginning is really quite upsetting. I give you permission to walk away if you need it. :)

      • Jenny says:

        And Beloved was waaaaaay too upsetting for me. When my English class spent an hour discussing it, I got really nauseated and seriously thought I was going to be sick. Tender Morsels sounds possibly even worse.

      • Jenny says:

        Well, see, Tender Morsels is better in one sense — it doesn’t have the weight of historical reality behind it the way Beloved does, the way that makes you ill — but it’s far worse in another, in that it’s a worse book. Morally worse, worse-written, less interesting. So there’s less framework to hold up the horror. (Obviously the more I think it over, the less I like it. Hmmm.)

  7. gaskella says:

    I haven’t read your review in full as I’m planning to read this soon myself – I’ve heard such a lot about it. BTW my UK edition is from a children’s publisher, but has ‘Not suitable for younger readers’ inside.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not much of one for censoring children’s books, but I don’t consider this appropriate for kids much under 14. Luckily, I didn’t know this was a YA book until I got to some of the other reviews!

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