Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Synopsis from back cover:

Liga raises her two daughters in the safe haven of an alternative reality, a personal heaven granted by magic as a refuge from her earthly suffering. But the real world cannot be denied forever and when the barrier between the two worlds begins to break down, Liga’s fiery daughter, Urdda, steps across it…

Tender Morsels is essentially a retelling of the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red“, and while all the fundamentals are there (the antithetical sisters, the dwarf and his troubles, the bear-who-was-a-man) these elements are taken and deeply woven into a whole new tale, far darker and far more exquisite – an analogy of childhood innocence and the most difficult coming into of adulthood.

The greatest element of this book is the underlying sense of unsettlement, something ‘not quite right’ about the fantasy world in which the three women live. Liga’s world feels as hazy and unreal as it truly is, and there’s always a sense of  something deeper flowing underneath, over which this heaven is pulled taut and thin and at every moment at risk of tearing, breaking through. The nature of this world inspires disregard for the way things should be, an intrinsic lack of desire to question how things are, and for a time it seems miraculous. It sounds liberating, the endless forest, the abundant river, the accommodating townsfolk, the inherent friendship of Bear and Wolf. This is how fairytales read, but for the first time (in my reading experience) here is a novel that captures that essence without removing reality entirely from our peripheral vision. In that faux perfection, it sublimely accentuates the necessary darkness in life, without which, existence merely reflects some good values once held but now rendered indefinite by the absence of anything else.

In terms of characters, there is a well-rounded bit of everything. The three main women: Urdda, representing that innate natural curiosity for meaning in life, the advance toward adulthood, for all aspects of existence; not just the safest. Branza, her counterpart, who suffers a childlike withdrawal and who would will away real life. Liga, the source, who is aware of the former, but chooses the latter until it simply cannot be denied. There is a wonderful empathy in this story with those who would hide away from pain and loss and trauma, but there is also the illumination of immense possibility – the possibilities of real life which cannot exist without the risk of painfully failing to attain them. All these allusions and illusions contrast with characters who verify and nullify fears and doubts – the greedy littlee-man whose presence throws Heaven out of whack, Teasel who would soil it, the tender-hearted Bear whose sympathy and love is the first of a man’s heart extended to Liga. Muddy Annie, a world-weary woman who would give those their escapes and Miss Dance, that reassuring figure of authority,  a source of sense and right.

The novel is beautifully written; surprising easy to read despite the implicitly morbid events of Liga’s past. Fortunately the worst in over in the first 60 pages, because it really is a tough, heart-breaking read, and I must admit I’m surprised it’s classed as a Young Adult novel. It certainly begs a mature and open-minded reader, regardless of the age. If that reader is you, however, I can’t recommend this novel enough. Shocking, gripping, poignant, delicate. It is incredibly unique, achieving and perfecting absolutely that troubling juxtaposition of fairytale and reality; culminating elegantly in the most fitting realisations of life.


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