Review – Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan


“The girls were two flames at which she warmed herself to humanness, having long been something else—stone, perhaps; dried-out wood. Their perfect trust that the happy times would continue—she watched it and she sipped it as some small birds sip nectar, and she began, if not to perfectly trust it herself, at least to hope more strongly, at least to look beyond the beauties of the immediate season to the plans and practicalities demanded by the next—or the next several years, maybe? Maybe.”

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is a young adult novel that focuses on one small family – a mother, Liga, and her two daughters, Urdda and Branza.  After a short life of hardships, artfully alluded to in the beginning of the novel, the young mother finds herself unable to continue living in the world and unwilling to raise her daughters in such a monstrous place.  Just as she is about to fling herself, her daughter and her unborn child over the side of a cliff, she is instructed by a magical baby (a manifestation of the magic between worlds, that throughout the story takes different forms) to bury two stones in front of her home.  She does so, though she isn’t sure why, and when she wakes up, her decrepit cabin becomes whole, the town at first seems the same, but it is in fact a mirror of the town she left behind in the real world.  It is less crowded, the people are nicer.  As time progresses, and her daughters grow, she eventually realizes that the townspeople are not people, so much as shells, placeholders in the perfect world she created.  However, her youngest daughter is not so willing to continue living in the mirror world, and when she unknowingly returns to the real world it completely shatters the “perfect” world she created.

In a less intelligent version of this novel, I don’t think the family ever would have left the perfect world.  They would have done everything in their power to keep it intact, to keep “living” in the perfect town, without ever coming to grips with the mother’s violent past.  One of my favorite sections was about the bears – and I would have loved for it to continue, just as, I’m sure, the characters in the novel would have.  But it wasn’t real.  It was a magical experience, yes, but it was still inferior to living in the real world.  One wonderful, real interaction in the magical world does not make up for the daily false interactions, for the daily lie.

For a while, after first finishing the novel, I wasn’t really sure what to think.  I’m glad I let this one sit around in my head for a while, because I think what it has to say is more important, more valid than what I original thought.  Where Tender Morsels’ obvious strength lies is in its originality, both of story and language.  Reading the novel is like learning a new way of speaking; it is like reading in dialect, but one that seems to be invented by the author.  But the more subtle success of the novel is what it says about literature, about fantasy, about life.  Perhaps there was no intention of the author of illuminating those themes, perhaps she just set out to create an original fantasy story and nothing more.  Instead, what has been created, is a pensive examination of life on so many levels.

To get them out of the way, because I do not want them to overshadow the way I felt about the book, are the two misgivings I have about this novel.   First, I was confused and somewhat irritated about the change in narration style and perspective, though I have something else to say about this later.  The other thing that concerns me about this novel, perhaps, is its inaccessibility.  I think it is appealing to a large group of readers, but not everyone.  There is a lot of suspension of disbelief required, something that I really enjoyed, but I’m still not sure who I would recommend this to outside of very voracious readers or avid fantasy readers.  This is not necessarily a fault of the novel, so much as my own misgivings about recommending this to people who would not give it the time of day.  It would be unfair.  That’s that, let’s talk about the great things.

This novel works on so many different levels, it really is amazing.  At face value, it’s a fairly simple tale.  However, it’s so layered that it takes weeks and, I imagine, multiple rereads to really get a grasp on the different layers.  The way I related to this story is as a reader.  In many ways, it appealed to the side of me that wants to live in books, to escape reality when things get rough by reading.  Like the characters in Tender Morsels, we must return to the real world.  So then, we can look at it from the perspective of a writer trying to find escape in writing a story, when ultimately we will be thrust from the world of our creation and back to the so-called “real world.”  Fantasy itself is meaningless without the drudgery of the real world to compare it to.  Fantasy, like Lanagan’s novel, allows us to at once escape but still find the value and beauty in the world we live in.

This novel also addressed the question of gender in many ways.  One particular way was the difference in style between the voice of the women and the men.  The men always told their stories through first-person, while the women told their stories through 3rd person.  Why do you think there is this difference?  Do you think the author did it purposefully? I stated above that it was one of my misgivings.  I’m still not positive.  On the one hand, it seems to say a lot about gender, something I feel the author thought was very important.

Tragedy and violence are the catalysts for this story, but at its heart are love, forgiveness and kindness.  Lanagan raises an important issue – though we may like to disappear into a fantasy land, though life may become too difficult that we feel as though we absolutely cannot continue on, where we find our solace is in the company of others. Simple kindness and the more complex emotional connections we form with our family are what really pushes us through the day to day and what gets us through tragedy.

89% – Beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting.

Also reviewed by:

Nymeth – Things mean a lot
YA Fabulous

9 thoughts on “Review – Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

  1. I added this to my list after reading your Sunday Salon post not too long ago. It sounds like a really intriguing book, and I’m looking forward to getting around to it. Great review.

  2. Loved your review, Lu. The 1st and 3rd person thing is something I hadn’t considered. I’ll have to pay more attention when I re-read it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea was indeed to say something about gender and power and the lack thereof, and feeling like you have the right to have a voice or not.

    You know, I actually didn’t find it inaccessible. It does require suspension of disbelief, but so much of what I read does too 😛 And the language does require your full attention, but the book HAD my full attention anyway because the story grabbed me immediately. All this to say that maybe you’re right, but I’ll still be telling anyone who’ll listen to read it 😛

  3. Thanks for this very thoughtful review. This is a book that seems to be LOVED or not really liked at all, and I want to give it a try, but just haven’t taken the plunge. I think your review informs why it might not work for some. I think I should definitely give it a try.

  4. Honestly, I didn’t even notice the point of view switches re: the men and the women. What a great catch! Thanks for pointing it out. That’s a lot of food for thought. Third person affords a kind of privacy, while first person doesn’t. I wonder if that’s it, although I like Nymeth’s opinion, too!

    I have added your review link to my review at YA Fabulous!. 🙂

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