It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read a fantasy. I’m not sure why this is – I loved Lord of the Rings and read the whole trilogy one memorable Easter – but something I read by Jean Auel that came highly recommended just didn’t interest me at all.
Anyway, I picked up Tender Morsels from the library on one of my ‘greedy days’ there and have worked my way through the pile to it, tucked between A House Unlocked and Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy– which I may have already read long ago, but I hope I can get to it before it’s due back. (That’s the trouble with being greedy at the library; the pressure to get through the stack before options to renew run out means that library books ‘push in’ on the TBR like naughty children in the canteen queue.
I digress, and of course it’s because Tender Morsels isn’t quite my kind of book but I don’t want to criticise it because it’s actually very well done. The character Liga enlisted my sympathy from the outset – she leads a truly terrible life until her merciful escape to the un-named fantasy world, and I like the way Lanagan has created dialogue with daughters Branza and Urrda that cleverly captures adolescent irritation, affection and growth into maturity. The girls are a tad too good to be true here and there, but I don’t much mind that. An invented kind of earthy language is used to show the natural innocence of the characters, and it’s interesting to see how the author dexterously manipulates this language to show that similar words uttered by evil beings have entirely different meanings.
For the fantasy genre to work, the alternative world/s must always be credible, and Lanagan achieves this, not least because Liga does not live in some escapist dream. Although she recovers and feels safe most of the time, minor incidents can trigger her fear that ‘they’ will discover she is a ‘bad girl’, take everything away from her and send her back to her old life. Her memories of abuse go with her always, and the touching scene where she tentatively explores a potential relationship with Joseph the Lathe shows just how fragile her confidence is. This is why she clings to the artificial safety of her own world, and why she returns to reality only at Branza’s insistence. The scene where she ‘confesses’ to Old Annie is touching in its veracity, and the release she feels is powerful indeed.
And then Liga could not think of any further let-outs or mitigations for [her father], and the bald, cruel truth of what he had done to her, and repeated on her time after time, bab after bab…fell in on her like the roof of a cottage whose pinnings have slumped just a little too far. She crouched there, small and tight as she could possibly hold herself, and while the wormy rafters and the rotted thatch threw up their dust and vermin around her, she sobbed rage and grief in the little old lady’s arms. (p267)
Lanagan’s theme is that the real world, for all its cruelties, petty and tragically otherwise, is a better place than a bland idyll.
You are a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks your heart. However sweet that other place was, it was not real. It was an artifact of your mam’s imagination; it was a dream of hers and a desire; you could not have stayed there forever and called yourself alive. Now you are in the true world, and a great deal more is required of you. Here you must befriend real wolves, and lure real birds down from the sky. Here you must endure real people around you, and we are not uniformly kind; we are damaged and impulsive, each in our own way. It is harder. It is not safe. But it is what you were born to. (p299)
At a time when ‘helicopter parents’ imprison their children under constant surveillance and governments spend vast amounts of money on homeland security, this is a brave proposition to challenge. Young adults, ever stretching the boundaries, will identify with wilful, adventurous Urrda; parents sick at heart during the early hours of the morning waiting for a child to come home will feel less sanguine. Liga is broken-hearted to learn that her daughters were less open with her than she had dreamed:
And then Liga’s own daughters, both of them, and for years! – and this pained Liga deeper than anything….had not betrayed her, exactly, but they had kept things from her; they had had secrets! (p246)
Lanagan herself has surely known this loving, disabling fear:
How could Branza sleep, [Liga] wondered, how could Urrda run her errands in the town, and not be aware how their mam was being attacked, beaten, crushed by her own loving fear for them? She hardly knew what to do, it had been so long since such strong feelings had borne down on her. It was like carrying another creature inside her, and nothing so benign and natural as a baby. Undamped, untamed, the pain and exultation of her attachment to them blew through Liga like a storm-wind carrying sharp leave and struggling birds. How long she had known her daughters, and how well, and in what extraordinary vividness and detail! How blithely she had done the work of rearing them – it seemed to her now that she had had cause for the towering, disabling anxieties about them; that what had seemed little plaints and sorrows in their childhoods were in fact off-drawings from much greater tragedies, from which she had tried to keep them but could not. (p265)
Blithe, innocent Urrda asks ‘Are you happy with all this, Mam?’ and what can poor Liga say? Her daughters have made their choice in ignorance of the world’s dangers. All she can do is to lie, to cover up the shame of their begetting, and in doing so her identity shifts as she takes on a new name so that no one will link her with the past. (Here a bit of clever time-shifting helps, and this seems a bit of authorial cunning rather than credible but it has a purpose which is revealed in the surprise ending.)
Lanagan explores ideas about what it means to be human (which reminded me a little of ideas in Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape) and the importance of truth.
Comfort is not the aim, Branza, said Urrda with a laugh. Comfort is what we had. Here we have …Well Miss Dance calls this the true world. Here we have truth!’ (p261)
Miss Dance represents the kind of woman that daughters should aspire to. Urrda chafes at the advice given to her by Todda, to make herself a small target because dominant males have power without impunity to torment her, and worse. She is never to walk alone; she must dress prudently. Neither of the girls takes this advice: Urrda’s choices lead her to Miss Dance as mentor because she wants to use her powers wisely; the more compliant Branza stares down her tormentors and walks tall.
This is a fine, well structured novel, beautifully written, but for me, the breaking down of the borders between one world and another didn’t quite work. Ramstrong’s adventures as a bear seemed bizarre, and the fairytale allusions (evil dwarf, beauty-and-the-beast) strained credulity, though there isn’t any fairytale redemption for Collaby Dought, nasty creation that he is. Lanagan has no mercy for her evil characters, especially not the Five who suffer punishment and humiliation no less than their crime. An eye for an eye is a very Old Testament way of looking at the world…
I don’t much care for magic realism, and this fantasy is a step too far for me. Still, I have no hesitation in recommending this title for those who like the genre – it is surely one of the best. Tender Morsels was shortlisted for the 2008 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and there is an excellent review at Locus Online.
Author: Margo Lanagan
Title: Tender Morsels
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Source: Kingston Library