I have to admit that the thing that first attracted me to this book was the wonderful cover art. However, for once, it appears that I was right to jud...more
I have to admit that the thing that first attracted me to this book was the wonderful cover art. However, for once, it appears that I was right to judge a book by its cover. Tender Morsels is a retelling of the Snow White and Rose Red story and, as fairytales go, it is decidedly of the Brothers Grimm variety, dark, vivid and brutal, so do not expect it to be full of sunshine, rainbows and unicorns.
When we meet the main character, Liga, she is 13 years old, living with her father in a lonely hut at the edge of a dark forest and she is having a miscarriage, though she is not yet capable of understanding what is happening to her. In very short order, we learn that Liga is being raped by her father and see her suffering through a number of miscarriages induced by concoctions purchased by the father from a local "mudwife", giving birth to a child resulting from the repeated incestuous rape and then being raped again by a group of town boys. Unable to deal with the trauma of her experiences, Liga attempts suicide but is rescued by a magical "moon babby" and granted her own version of heaven, where she and her two daughters (the second being but a foetus in her womb at that stage) can be safe.
The main theme of this book is one of sexual violence, the effect it has and the process of coping with, surviving and healing from it. Liga's coping mechanism is denial. She escapes to an imaginary world where nothing can harm her, everything is pleasant and even her feelings themselves are muted to a point where she cannot feel any strong emotions at all. But the real world cannot be avoided indefinitely and by ignoring what happened to her, Liga is unable to effectively deal with or move past her experiences. Her world is a safe cocoon, devoid of anything dangerous or unpleasant, but it is also a fake world, devoid of real people or emotions and while it shields Liga from harm, it also means that she is unable to fully experiences life's joys.
"How soft had been her life in that other place, how safe and mild! And here she was, back where terrors could immobilize her, and wonders too; where life might become gulps of strong ale rather than sips of bloom-tea. She did not know whether she was capable of lifting the cup, let alone drinking the contents."
As a parent, I found this theme of living in the real world and facing up to all of its aspects, good and bad, and the damage that over-protecting and cotton wool wrapping can do very interesting. Lanagan's message is quite clear:
"…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."
It also plays into the debate about whether or not this book is suitable for a young adult audience to which it has been marketed in the US and UK. Personally, I think that it is quite clear that the book was not written as a children's book. There are certainly references and description that a younger audience will not be able to understand fully or relate to, but does that mean that teenagers should not read it? I don't think so.
However much we may wish otherwise, sexual violence is a part of our world, and it is not within our power to completely shield our children from it. This book is a tender and sensitive contemplation of the damage that sexual violence can do and the emotional impact it has on a person and, despite its subject matter, it is never graphic in its descriptions. The violence is not gratuitous, is not at any point glorified and is not there simply to shock. So, my personal view is that this book is appropriate for teens.
Unlike the author of that article, I do not believe children's literature (and let me just pause a second there to note that the word "children" is highly emotionally charged and the book is in fact being marketed at "young adults" rather than 5 year olds) needs to concern itself solely with "singing dwarves and a comedy cruel queen, followed by an innocent peck on the cheek by a handsome prince". Like Ms Lanagan, I do think that trying to hide the real world from your children is likely to do more harm than good and do not feel nostalgic about children's publishing as "a world that used to be a peaceful haven from the sordid realities against which most of us would rather shield our children". Our children these days are constantly bombarded with images of sex and violence and I would much rather my daughter learned about them by reading a beautifully written, tender and gentle book than by watching the sensationalist news coverage of cases such as that of Elizabeth Fritzl or through "smutty playground banter".
Tender morsels is not an easy book and it is not perfect. The middle did drag and I did find the multiple narratives distracting at times and there is a dearth of positive male characters (even Ramstrong, in the end is insensitive and small-minded, at the very least). Yet I found it richly rewarding and loved it despite all those things. I loved Lanagan's prose, so vivid and full of flavour, and the way there are no easy answers or straightforward consequences and even the way it left me feeling so cut up and tender that I am convinced that we as readers are the real tender morsels of the title. (less)