Tender Morsels


More than any book I've read lately, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels (a re-telling of the Germanic fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red," and also an examination of the powers and limits of coping mechanisms after a severe trauma) took me outside my reading comfort zone. For one thing, it is marketed as a "young adult" novel here in the States, a classification I don't normally read. For another, it involves elements—parallel dimensions, witches and sorceresses, people transforming into bears and back into people—that mark it as fantastical, and not in a wacky Japanese dream-world way or a surreal David Lynch-type way, but in an undeniably—well—Fantasy type way.

And that, I'm ashamed to say, kinda freaked me out. I'm not claiming it's good or it's right, but there you have it. I am prejudiced enough to have cringed over the more involved magical scenes. Moon-creatures hovering over abysses, witches conjuring portals between two parallel worlds; sorceresses explaining to rooms full of people how this and that magical mechanism functioned—I must admit it gave me pause. I was reliably more engaged whenever Lanagan veered toward the classic "fairy tale" format—iconic rather than developed characters, magic that seems more about allegory than magic-for-magic's-sake, schematic events that move quickly and use a certain, specific kind of heavily simplified language ("Once upon a time, in a cottage at the edge of a forest, there lived a young girl and her brother..."). Certain scenes in Tender Morsels really tapped into that rich, allegorical power that fairytales can have. I got chills during the scene when Liga realizes, after being incestually abused and then gang-raped, that her town has mysteriously been transformed into something that will not hurt or threaten her anymore:

Lucky indeed Liga felt, walking home that day with figs and sugar and good smoke-meat in her basket, and her first lesson with Mistress Taylor set for next afternoon. It was all very different from the noise and bustle and nastiness she had expected to weather in the town; it was very odd to have conjured a headful of terrors and carried them into St. Olafred's, only to discover them all to be unfounded.
          She held her baby close against her breast as she walked along. "How lovely, Branza! Such a different place! How long can it last, do you think? Is it to be ours forever?"

This scene reminded me of the final pages of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, in which Pecola reacts to her father's rape by retreating into a fantasy world where she has achieved her life-long dream of being blue-eyed and having a friend. From the outside, however, it merely looks as though she's walking around talking to the air, flailing her arms like a broken bird. There is a disconnect between perception and reality: suddenly Liga's world is much safer and kinder, her emotions calmer; to her, this is a sign that the harm against her has been magically alleviated, whereas to the reader it's an indication of just how extreme that harm really was.

What I'm getting at by beginning my post with the ways in which my snobbishness sometimes got in the way of my enjoyment of Tender Morsels, is that the novel deserves so much better. Although I wasn't completely riveted at every moment (for a fairy tale, the book is quite long), although it's not up my normal alley, Lanagan's story gave me so much to unpack. It speaks eloquently about the ways in which the richness of life is inextricably bound up with the tragedy and hurt of it, and about how people can reach a point of hurt where their only feasible survival strategy is to cut themselves off from that richness, retreat into a flat safety. So too, it raises fascinating questions about the process of emerging from places of safety—both for the person (in this case Liga) who created the retreat in the first place, and for those (her daughters) who have never known any other reality. On the one hand, Lanagan seems more optimistic than Morrison: we get the sense that Pecola will never emerge from her shattered madness, whereas Liga is pulled from her retreat after twenty-five years, and learns to live in the world and even appreciate what it has to offer. On the other hand, we are also left with a sense that, in certain ways, she has waited too long: by savoring her retreat for so many years, she has permanently missed some of the fullness of real-world existence. She emerges at age 40 with only an adolescent's understanding of certain aspects of life, and it's too late to recoup her losses completely. This seems to me an accurate, if tragic, comment on the experiences of many people with severe trauma early in life: they simply never get the chance to catch up.

Lanagan makes several decisions in Tender Morsels that seem ripe for discussion, and which I didn't completely understand. For example, the narration in the novel switches between third-person (in sections dealing with Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda) and a variety of first-person narrators—the rascally but charismatic dwarf Collaby Dought; earnest Davit Ramstrong, who spends three months with Liga as a bear; young Bullock Oxman, who becomes a bear in his own world, against his will. Although Lanagan is plainly interested in the female experience in this novel, it's hard not to notice that all of the characters who actually get a voice here are men. Not even the cackling widow Annie Bywell speaks for herself directly out of the page. Lanagan herself says, in the book's appendix, that she

wanted to make a subtle point about how the men are comfortable imagining themselves as the heroes of their own story, whereas the women always feel themselves to be part of a bigger story that is more significant than their own lives.

I find this explanation unsatisfying. Yes, it is part of male privilege to feel one is the hero of one's own story. But the particular female characters Lanagan creates—in particular Annie, who is selfish and strong-willed enough, certainly more so than Davit Ramstrong, and also Urdda, who has a child's self-centered curiosity until very late in the novel, and who has been raised in a dream-world with her mother at the center, away from patriarchal power structures—I don't believe they think of themselves as more acted-upon than acting, nor that they necessarily see themselves as parts of a larger whole.

I felt the division of narratives works better as an indication of Liga's alienation: how she is, for much of the story, so cut off from her own self and the world around her. The first-person narrators achieve a level of visceral reality that's absent from the third-person sections, which makes sense given that Liga and her daughters are living in a flattened, passionless world. This, for example, is one of my favorite passages from Dought:

There was a certain type of rich feller liked to use me much as a doll is used, to dress me up in tiny clothes and have me pop up around his house, spreading scandal and scampery. And many a year passed in this merry type of employment.
          But I put all of my eggs in one basket with one lord, and off he went and died, didn't he? And what I thought I had coming to me through him, his family felt I ought not to gain—for certainly I had done as he said very well, and their names were all muddied about the place most satisfactory. I got barely a worm-squidge out of them. By dint of being inscrutable, though, I built and built that squidge up, to the point where it all exploded around me in a mess of thieves and cheaters—myself included, I don't deny that—and bills for liquors I and my fellows had drunk but not paid for, meals unremunerated that we had long since shat out.

Liga and Branza, and even Urdda, never get to be quite as vivid as Collaby is here; I kept waiting for the point, after their reentry into the real world, when one of the female characters would assume the first-person voice, but it never happened. I'm torn between thinking this is a fitting statement about the alienating effects of their experiences, individually and as women, and being disappointed because it seems at odds with the more optimistic futures that await Branza and Urdda, not to mention the entire lived reality of Annie.

Another interesting portrayal, I thought, was Urdda's reaction when she learns the truth about her conception. She's utterly devastated, in a way that's made even worse by her earlier sheltered life: she hadn't ever considered that such cruelty and ugliness could exist in the world, much less that it would have engendered her own body. I thought about Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and how the society in that novel is insidious in exposing the children very gradually to the knowledge of their eventual fates. Kathy says that they are always told just slightly more than they can fully understand, so that no revelation ever comes as a shock. Urdda's situation is the exact opposite: most people, I think, learn about the theoretical possibility of violence and rape gradually, and come to accept (for better or worse) living in a world that includes those things, whereas Urdda has been completely sheltered from anything resembling such knowledge, so that when it bursts upon her in a single torrent she is completely overwhelmed with rage and lust for revenge. It's such an understandable and inevitable reaction that I found myself trying to remember when I myself had felt like that: surely, there must have been a time? My own initiations were closer to those in Ishiguro's novel, however, than those in Lanagan's.

But when Urdda finally gets her revenge, almost without meaning to...I'll just say that I felt Lanagan was inserting a bit more fairy-tale quality into the "real world" of her story. Urdda is consumed with rage, and causes her revenge; after the revenge, she wakes up "with no particular feelings at all" about the knowledge she gained the day before. Her inadvertent act of revenge seems to have slated her anger in a way I found allegorically unconvincing. Is it supposed to be part of the magic of the situation that Urdda has come to complete apathy or acceptance (which is it?) of humanity's violence to humanity, and her own subjugated state as a woman, in the space of a single night? Is this change of feeling engendered by violence? I find it hard to believe that any simple act of retribution could really slake such a deep hurt. Is there some kind of key in the fact that the violence Urdda causes is unintentional, or righteous? Either idea strikes an uncomfortable chord in an otherwise beautifully resonant book.


Tender Morsels was our May read for the Non-Structured Group; June's pick is Gabriel Josipovici's Moo Pak. Discussion on the 25th; feel free to join in!

I'm also counting Tender Morsels as my third book toward the Women Unbound Challenge.


  • I loved this book with all my heart - so glad you seem to have enjoyed it :)

  • I'm glad you found aspects of this book that appealed to you, Emily, but the only thing that resonated for me was my laughter as I approached the finish line! For now, I'm happy to admit that I desperately hope to avoid any future brushes with the teen witches/revenge fantasy/evil dwarf genre of Tender Morsels and its ilk.

  • I just happen to be reading this right now -- almost finished -- and I am not enjoying it much. I fully expected to, as it was recommended by several people whose taste I trust, but honestly, not only do the same things trouble me that trouble you here, but several other things as well (disjointed plot, morality-dumps, etc.). I'll be writing a review sometime soonish.

  • The same "snobbishness" was in me when I came across buzz about this book. I don't usually read YA. But when you mentioned--and this is the first time I learned of this--that the book's based on "Snow White and Rose Red," I'm very much willing to give this a try. When I was a kid, my mom gave me this giant book of "obscure" fairytales--at least the non-Disney kinds. It was horrific, and I loved it. And that fairytale, in particular, was one of my favorites. [I once re-told it to someone, and that someone said that I was just making the story up, haha.]

    I know you found problems with this book, but, well, I'm taking the plunge. I'm feeling rather sentimental right now. And thank you so much for giving this back to me, the gift began with that one sentence of the book's origins.

    /sorry for being so sentimental all over your comments box ;p

  • I hadn't come across this at all and wondered whether it had been published in the UK, but a quick skip round the library site shows that we do have some copies of it and I will certainly be recommending it to our teenage reading group on the strength of what you've said. It's interesting how often novels for young adults do rework the old fairy tales. Have you read Adele Geras's trilogy, 'Happy Ever After', which places the stories of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow -White in what was, when they were written, a modern setting? They would make an interesting contrast.

  • Fascinating review! I loved certain aspects of this book, but like you found many parts just didn't quite work for me. It has been a while since I read it, so I can't quite remember the specific details, but I seem to remember that I didn't find some of the fantasy elements convincing. It seemed to switch from horrific acts to a beautiful fairy tale world too quickly and so it jarred and never felt realistic.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful review. It has really helped me to clarify in my own head a lot of my own thoughts about it. Reading this has been a weird experience for me - more on that later when I post.

    Lanagan's narrative choices are really interesting, and I like how you've deconstructed that a little. I definitely found Dought to be the most vivid character, and it would have been great to hear Annie's voice. I didn't connect with Liga and her daughters very well, but that seemed appropriate, especially given the fairy-tale format that they existed in, the "once upon a time" of their lives. Other characters seemed more real to me, and that effect almost worked well, but at times it was definitely choppy.

    Glad you got something worthwhile out of this reading experience!

  • I think even when Liga was brought back into the real world, psychologically she was still in La-La land. And I didn't blame her!

  • Awesome post, Emily. I do feel conflicted about this book though. The mama bear / librarian in me is concerned that the cover art and accolades for the book will prompt many not ready for this to pick it up. Incest, forced miscarriages, and gang rape are not suitable for even the most advanced reader of a certain age. They are not psychologically equipped to deal with issues like these. Their vulnerabilities are hidden but still there.

    Also did not care for what Jenny referred to above as the "morality dumps" and the simplistic feminist message. What exactly would Liga find appealing about returning to the "real" world? Keep thinking of Kate Chopin's The Awakening and the choice made there rather than accepting an unacceptable world. Hmm.

    Still thinking through, but did enjoy the prose and imagery for what that is worth.

  • Too bad there seem to be so many problematic elements to the book. What do you think a teenage girl might make of it? And maybe you'll have to read some Angela Carter now as an antidote? ;)

  • Aimee: Glad to bring back memories of a favorite for you! :-)

    Richard: Haha, I guessed this wouldn't be up your alley. I was on the fence about it, but at least it sounds like I was more interested during the reading process. Oh well.

  • Jenny: I think I gave it more leeway for heavy-handed morality because it's a fairy tale - I mean, isn't that kind of the point of the whole genre? I definitely cut Hans Christian Andersen & the Grimm brothers a lot of slack on that score when I read them, so I felt I should do the same for Lanagan...especially since her morality aligns more closely with mine, despite its occasional lack of subtlety. But can certainly understand not liking that aspect. And I agree on the choppy/overlong plot.

    Sasha: Sentimentalize away! :-) No reason not to! If you have a particular history with "Snow White and Rose Red," this book would certainly be of interest to you, and I thought of it when you posted on that book of Petruvskaya stories a while ago (or, when I got around to reading your post, haha). I'd be curious on your thoughts when/if you get to it.

  • Study Window: Like Frances says, I'm actually not sure how appropriate this book would be for the market it's being sold to in the States...it has to do so much with rape & violence. I don't know enough about childhood development to know when most readers are "ready" for something like this (despite having read a lot of pretty harsh stuff myself at a young age)...if you know more about that, maybe read it yourself before recommending? It's a hard one to categorize as "adult" versus "teen," for sure.

    Jackie: Interesting - the initial transition from "real" world to fantasyland was one of the things that worked best for me, actually - it seems like Liga's brain kind of breaks and we're seeing the results of that. Other fantastical elements, especially ones that she's not involved in (Annie conjuring the portal, for example), worked much less well for me. Overall, I agree that it was a bit of a mixed bag...

  • Sarah: Your sentence "The effect almost worked well" sums up much of my reaction this novel. There were brief snatches were I was totally on board, but for the most part I was kind of torn. Definitely did find the experience worthwhile, though, despite the choppiness & inconsistency. Will look forward to your thoughts & how it was weird for you!

    Jill: Interesting - I think it took some time for Liga to emerge from la-la land, but by the end I felt like she was at least on her way. Having to re-tell her story to Annie & Urdda was significant, I thought. But I think you're right that she's...behind.

  • Frances: I had a whole paragraph at the end of my post, which I cut because of length, that voiced my surprise about this being marketed as YA. It made me question the usefulness of even having such a category - if this book falls into it, why not Murakami's Kafka on the Shore or Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian? They have teenage protagonists, too! That said, I don't think I totally agree on it being unconvincing that Liga would learn to value the real world. She finds real friends there, real human connection with good people, which she didn't when she was 14, and there is a mutual give-and-take that couldn't happen with the pleasant-faced non-people in her heaven. I've gotta say I'm VERY glad it didn't end like The Awakening - I'm so freakin' tired of that ending, good grief. Hey, also, I don't know anything about child development & reading: what happens when kids read things before they're ready for them? I was a super-precocious reader & consumed plenty of rape/violence/drug-heavy books at a very young age, & am curious about the effects that's supposed to have. I actually find that kind of stuff a lot more traumatic to read about now that I've had some life experience...at the time it was all theoretical & didn't bother me much.

    Stefanie: I have no idea what an actual teenager would make of it...frankly my own experience is that I wasn't traumatized by seeing or reading about rape & violence until I had some scary life experience of my own. At which point they became triggers, and much harder to watch/read. As for antidotes, apparently I haven't had enough of the moralizing because right now I'm reading Howard Zinn. :-)

  • I agree that Lanagan was definitely better off sticking to the classic fairy-tale format. For me, the book was just way too long.

  • This is not a book I would ever pick up for at least two reasons: YA and fantasy. Yet your review intrigues me, and despite the flaws, I'd now like to read Tender Morsels. I actually do write some moments of fantasy when the emotional stakes are high and so I was glad to be reminded of Toni Morrison's use of it in The Bluest Eye.

  • everytime I read an overview of this book I wonder why on earth it is considered YA.

  • EL Fay: Yup, I agree that it was darn long.

    Cynthia: I think your description ("moments of fantasy when the emotional stakes are high") describes so well the scenario in which I like fantastical/magical elements best. Basically, I guess I need a psychological element to them, which is why I liked the early scenes of magic in this book (when it seemed like it could all be happening inside Liga's head), but not the later scenes. Ah well.

    Rebecca: Definitely. I thought Frances dealt with those questions very well. I questioned it too, but she actually has the training to back it up.

  • Emily, can I say again that you're wonderful? I feel like I've failed the group because I failed to finish this. In truth, after reading your post, I think maybe I want to try picking it up again. Your appreciative view of the characters and events are surely convincing. I wonder if I missed out by stopping so early? I stopped about 50+ pages. Following Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50. I still wasn't enjoying it by then so dropped it. But maybe I didn't give the book enough of a chance? Weird because I was truthfully interested in the story but the writing was what turned me off. It irritated me. I was asking myself that if there were more "had nots" and "babs-es" could I go through the torture? But see you've managed to make me think twice about my decision, lol. Maybe I'll just skim to the end? Or at least to the middle? Will let you know.. Honestly, though, I liked Kristin L more than this. It was also annoying but in hindsight I find that there's after all something endearing about it (or was that just my memories of all our shared grievances and inside jokes over the course of time)? Lol.

  • Great review, seems like an interesting book to read even it is not to everyones taste. I quite like the Germanic fairytales because I think there is a lot more to them than meets the eye and they are quite dark and sinister in places as well.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography