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Old 10th Aug 2009, 17:27   #1
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Default Margo Lanagan: Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels is the headline-grabbing 2008 novel from Australian author Margo Lanagan, published in the UK as a YA imprint by David Fickling, and already a Printz Honor award winner.

In the tradition of Angela Carter or Neil Gaiman’s writing (and Carter-derived film Company of Wolves), Lanagan has drawn out from the old tale of Snow White & Rose Red, a richer and deeper exploration of that already sinister story. I was chilled as a child by the dwarf character in my Ladybird book ranting at Snow White/Rose-Red,

and when a little older, creeped out a little by the notion of a grown man romping in play with the young girls, albeit as a bear under an enchantment. The setting of a faux-medieval unnamed European state with local customs (Bear Day, as a fertility rite similar to Lupercalia) makes Tender Morsels hover on the border of fantasy and although the central conceit of Liga’s trauma and its solution can be understood as a wholly psychological response to the events in the first chapters, the story deals with this primarily through fantastical, magical means – parallel worlds, Midas-like transformations of matter and flesh, an angelic presence (a "moon-baby") and conjurations by wise women.

The mood and milieu of the story is superbly maintained throughout the telling, although the narration is carried by several characters and this does have a weakening effect, causing the action to sag a little in the second half. For the most part though, our focus is first on Liga, who flees her unbearable past by escaping to a ‘heavenly’ alternate reality containing none of the savagery of men or the cruelty of humanity, and then the narrative later is handed to her two daughters, Branza and Urdda. Even this happy world where Liga brings up her girls is violated and breached by men for greed’s gain and ultimately, once touched by and touching the real world, it cannot hold its isolation without harming both its inhabitants and those outside who brush up against it. The conclusion to the story is not as many readers may wish it but reflects the words of Miss Dance, the enchantress who brings a close to Liga’s options:

“You may never be entirely happy; few people are. You may never achieve your heart’s desire in this world, for people seldom do. sit by enough deathbeds, Branza, and you will hear your fill of stories of missed chances, and wrong turnings, and spurned opportunities for love. It is required of you only to be here, not to be happy. but believe me, you will have a better life here than in the other world, where your mother’s happiness was the ruling principle – and the idea of happiness she held at fifteen, no less! She never refreshed or nurtured it by exposing herself to any truth, or hardship, or personality more complex than her own daughters’…..”
What this book also contains is a great degree of sexual activity, all of it entirely in context and appropriate to the characters involved. Little of it is mutually tender: whilst the most violent acts are not graphic, female flesh is frequently used, abused, prodded and titillated; male characters (and yes, there are a couple of exceptions) are steered by their loins towards sexual acts, some of them aggressive, some (given the bear-human magical transformation that occurs in both worlds) coming close to an idea of bestiality. The book opens and closes with several acts of rape, both female and male. It is in the context of these things that I have difficulty with Tender Morsels being a book presented as being for the YA agegroup, which, at an estimate, spans 11-17+ yrs.

Tender Morsels’ reputation as a dark fairytale woven out of the severest of personal traumas has caused many a blog and review and media commentator in recent weeks to consider what matter is fit (or not) for the YA shelves. As a regular reader of YA books, and parent of (currently) three teens, and provider of a daily-occupied ‘hang-out’ for up to two dozen of their teen friends, I have, I hope, a reasonable gauge of teen humour, their expectations of what they read or films they see, and I have to affirm that this book does not fit the YA label, though those of 15+ yrs would appreciate it. I found my copy on the ordinary, not YA, shelves of the local Waterstones.

The YA author Meg Rosoff peer-reviewed the book for the Guardian - here - and commented, approvingly, that it left her “gasping with shock”, that some moments are a “child’s nightmare” and she agrees that people buying the book for “precocious young readers” should be wary of the “cruelty and perversion” within. Whilst I agree with many of Rosoff’s other commendations of the book, the above quotes suggest this is not a book for younger teens.

Children’s authors on the whole (judging from their vocal opposition earlier this year) are not happy with age labels on their books – fair enough, I agree. But where does the YA shelving begin? Is it for the eager 10 or 11 yr old, in Year 6 and feeling ready to be heading to secondary school? For the mostly-still pre-puberty 12 yr olds, the boys still shunning the girls (mostly)? A number of girls of these ages will perhaps attempt Wuthering Heights for the first time, with its violent sexual possessiveness and revenge, as well as reading any number of glossy magazines with lurid ‘real-life’ stories no more horrific than the ones in Tender Morsels. Wuthering Heights is shocking and disturbing on quite a different level to Tender Morsels (a scene where a sexually predatory man-bear spends time licking the nipples of a not entirely-repulsed teenage girl do not figure in Bronte-land) and the shock-horror weeklies are not shelved between Bliss and Sugar. Whilst any 15 yr old worth their salt might choose to hunt this out on the regular ‘adult’ shelves in a bookshop, for it to be generally stacked alongside Antony Horowitz or Stephenie Meyer or Malorie Blackman or Eva Ibbotson (to name just a few of the authors on YA shelves in the local Waterstones) means that those under 15 yrs (the youngest age I would recommend it to) will more than likely pick it up, at an age where they might possibly understand notionally about incest and rape but are more likely not emotionally old enough to handle the way these things are presented, even if some of the acts are only implied.

Despite the difficult categorisation, Tender Morsels is a fabulous read, in both senses of the term; elemental behaviours are explored as in most fairy-tales - grace and kindness as well as savagery - and the darkness and the vitality of human life is stirred up as the women at the centre of the story learn how to live with the horrors of the past and the danger of a future open to disappointment, and grief and wounding. They are tender morsels, in fact, learning how not to get eaten up.

Currently reading: The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins | My reading list | My film list

Last edited by Colyngbourne; 14th Aug 2009 at 9:18. Reason: Including a reference
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