Hello, and welcome to Mia’s first review of the year! I haven’t had as much time to read as I would like lately, due to more mundane concerns like housekeeping and keeping our kitten Flat Tire from ruining everything in the house. Nevertheless, I have read a book this far into the new year (I’ve actually read two, but I’m saving Liar for when Jessica and I can talk about it together)–and now you get to hear what I think!
by Margo Lanagan
“Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?”
Good Things: Even though I haven’t read too many of them myself, I’ve gotten a little tired of seeing fairy tale retellings, which are rather saturating the YA market right now. (Note: I would definitely not classify this book as YA–that’s just where the strongest fairy-tale-retelling presence is, currently.) However, I wouldn’t even know this was a fairy tale retelling if I hadn’t read about the book online; I mostly consider that a good thing, because I didn’t have a chance to think of the story as derivative. I don’t think I would have in any case. From my new understanding of Snow-White and Rose-Red, Tender Morsels is still an inventive, creative take on the original, and integrates the original elements fairly seamlessly–the fairy-tale-ness doesn’t feel forced or hamfisted into the framework of the story.
Although occasionally the prose errs on the side of purple (I imagine those who unreservedly enjoyed it would call it “lyrical”), it’s mostly pretty-and-descriptive with some teeth to it; the author doesn’t shy away from keeping the sort of earthy awfulness that is integral to fairy tales in the story, which I think is a place where many retellings are lacking. The characters are well fleshed-out and really feel like they have agency (other than one or two exceptions). I particularly liked Miss Dance, which will probably surprise nobody; despite her somewhat stereotypical trappings as the intimidating-spinster-witch, she doesn’t herself come off as a stereotype, and the author doesn’t rely upon character stereotypes to tell us about the protagonists–this is definitely a “show” as well as a “tell” book. (The bad guys, on the other hand, do come across as almost cartoonish in their terribleness.)
Bad Things: This is kind of a rough book. Despite putting that under “Bad Things,” I wouldn’t classify it as such–it just is what it is. The beginning of Tender Morsels contains child abuse, incestuous rape, gang rape, and general despair and thoughts of suicide. In fact, up until after Liga is transported to her heaven, it reminded me strongly of Robin McKinley’s Deerskin: a rather beautifully-written story with some extremely horrifying elements, although Tender Morsels is rather more detailed in its description of the horror. Making it through the first part will definitely be a difficulty for some people, especially those who are easily triggered by the aforementioned topics. (There is also more sexual abuse near the end of the book, which almost made me more uncomfortable than the stuff at the beginning; the story clearly shows Liga’s treatment at her father’s hands to be unspeakably awful, whereas the sexual abuse at the end is retributive, and there’s a tacit approval that those abused got what was coming to them.)
The story also bumps along unevenly, which I might attribute to its fairy tale origins and the somewhat strange pacing that fairy tales tend to have. The ending in particular was a pretty big disappointment to me, in its abruptness and where it leaves the characters (Liga in particular). I understand from an interview included in the back of the book that part of Margo Lanagan’s angle in writing Tender Morsels was to remove the moral qualities that the Grimms had bestowed upon it in their rewriting; futhermore, one of the main themes of the story is that real life isn’t always beautiful or perfect, but that it beats not-living in a not-real heaven. Altogether, it reads to me a bit as if the ending were written to reflect that idea that real life doesn’t always get complete closure or a happy ending, which I can get behind, but this felt unfinished, and also made me want to shake the book and tell it to give Liga a break for once.
Finally, and this is admittedly a little nit-picky, but I almost started counting the number of instances of the phrase “the ___ of him/her” (ex. “His teeth showed for a moment, and the danger of him.”)
Overall: I mostly enjoyed this one–the brutal parts are really brutal, and the bad/unlikeable characters are made really unlikeable, but there are some moments that have real strength: when Liga realizes the truth about the “people” in her heaven, when Bullock stays with Noer in the hut, and Branza’s visit with Miss Dance. Tender Morsels is faithful to the feeling of fairy tales, while still weaving an original, interesting story.