Saturday, September 18, 2010

Margo Lanagan/TENDER MORSELS

Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels (2008) confidently, easily swept from my head three-fourths of the fiction I've read for years. And it stomped the bejeezus out of any preconceptions I might have had about YA fiction in particular.

The short form: Tender Morsels retells and expands upon the Grimm fairy tale of "Snow-White and Rose-Red." Two beautiful and very different sisters grow up in what seems to be an enchanted forest. They encounter magical creatures both wonderful and fearsome. Eventually they (and their mother) encounter and must come to grips with the most wonderful, fearsome creature of all: the real world and all its thorny, sorrowful, and unavoidable but (in its own way) wonderful thereness.

That paragraph discharges one of my jobs in this review, telling you what happens without exactly, y'know, telling you what happens. If you bring to the book the eyes and instincts of someone who loves conventional fairy tales, you're already carrying fifty percent of the luggage you'll need for the trip.

Yet you should also come braced, with your mind open; come ready to be shaken. For this tale is not just illuminated by sunlight and magic, but shaded, disturbingly, by the terrors which humans -- by design and through ignorance -- can inflict on one another's bodies and souls.

Remember when J.K. Rowling announced, almost as an aside in an interview, that Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore was gay, however repressed? You could think back to all the Harry Potter books you'd read and, yes, by golly, you could see the markers she'd put in place. But nowhere in any of the books did Rowling say anything unambiguous about this surprise hiding in Dumbledore's character. You had to be looking.

When Margo Lanagan wants to tackle a "controversial" scene, boy, she lays it right out there. Forget hinted-at incest, implied rape, rumored miscarriages: there's no ducking any of it, from the very first chapter. She does not describe these scenes clinically; she does not spell out and-then-he-did-this-followed-by-that. But while skirting all the hows, she leaves no doubt about the whats. (She also does not flinch in depicting them as horrors rather than "dark mysteries." She clothes none of it in the bogus garb of romance or eroticism.)

And yet, and yet... this remains, stubbornly, a fairy tale. People take comfort in kindness, tenderness, and love. They weep with happiness as well as misery. Magic both undoes and redeems them. Not every good character lives happily ever after, but nor do they come to unsatisfying ends. It's impossible, ultimately, to read the book as anything but optimistic and -- despite the many inarguable horrors encountered on the way -- sweet.

I want to point out two other things about Tender Morsels which I really admired: the world in which it takes place, and the style in which it's told.

Lanagan immerses us in the time and setting of the book. The setting seems to be something like England. The names of towns have English-style names, ending in -by and -ton and -shire. From the rhythms of the characters' lives, we can guess that these events take place in perhaps the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. Magic and superstition still have a place at the table; anything more mechanical than a wheeled carriage or a grain mill is nowhere in sight. Early each spring, young men dress up as bears and chase young women -- screaming with feigned fright -- through the streets, acting out both the awakening of nature from winter and the awakening of boys and girls into adulthood.

All this is made real by the diction and rhythm of the language. Reading it is like chewing on granola as opposed to cornflakes: you can do the latter absently, while reading a newspaper or zoning out before a TV, but the former reminds you, split-second by split-second, I am eating, by God. It has texture, a mouthfeel, not just a flavor, from the names of the characters -- Liga, Branza, Urdda, Ramstrong, Collaby -- through lyrical expository passages, to the ways in which characters speak.

What's more, Tender Morsels is told from the distinct points of view of numerous characters: sometimes first- and sometimes third-person, and ranging from human to animal, women and girls to men and boys.

Selecting a perfect example is difficult without revealing too much of what's going on at a particular plot point. But maybe this will suffice, because it's how the Prologue opens:
There are plenty would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. Now I could get this embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.

She were a revelation, Hotty Annie. I had not known a girl could feel this too. Lucky girls; they can feel it and feel it and nothing need show on the outside; they have to act all hot like Annie did, talk smut and offer herself to the lads, before anyone can tell.

Well, we lay there in the remains of the hay cave, that we had collapsed around us with our energetics. We looked both of us like an unholy marriage of hedgehogs and goldilockses. I laughed and laughed with the relief of it, and she laughed at me and my laughter.

"By the Leddy," she said, "you have the kitment of a full man, you have, however short a stump you are the rest of you."

That "unholy marriage of hedgehogs and goldilockses" made me grin. (I'm grinning at it now.) But notice how from the very first sentence of the book, through the last of that passage, Lanagan puts us on notice: If you think you're entering a Disney tale, dear reader, please think again.

I'm astonished by what Margo Lanagan has wrought in Tender Morsels. And I very much regret it was tagged with the YA label -- not because it shouldn't be read by young adults, but because the label may keep it hidden from adults of an older stripe.

4 comments:

Froog said...

I'm glad you finally got around to reading - and writing about - this book, JES.

I was fascinated, enraptured by that opening passage when someone quoted it in a comment on your blog a year or so back. I'll have to get my hands on a copy of this.

A curious - Freudian? - slip in the middle of your review here: you refer to the title at one point as Mortal Lessons. How did that come about, do you suppose?

JES said...

Froog: oh, rats rats rats (and not the moon- version), about the typo. I actually corrected it a couple of times already. Mortal Lessons (subtitle: Notes on the Art of Surgery) is the title of a favorite book of essays, by Richard Selzer, M.D. For some reason the two titles kept getting all twisted about in my head, although Selzer's title does go very well as an alternate title for Lanagan's book!

Thanks for letting me know about it. Will fix.

I remember your reacting that way to the opening passage. You've never struck me as the sort who might like fantasy stories. (I can't remember if you've ever mentioned even Tolkien.) But this is so odd and unconventional and striking that I think it might be worth making an exception for!

Froog said...

I have commented on Tolkien here. I appreciate the appeal of his work for many people, but I feel that he is a fairly terrible writer.

I am resistant to fantasy in general, but always open to possible exceptions. Margo Lanagan's writing is so exquisite, I wouldn't really care what the the book was about.

I tend to think, though, that the difficulty of creating purely imaginary worlds is much overrated by fans of this genre. I find it for the most part a rather pointless exercise. It's far more challenging, and more satisfying, to craft a story within the parameters of the known world.

marta said...

This sounds amazing. But I confess that I've only skimmed the review because... I'm afraid to. But I want to read the book now. And I don't.

Good review...what I read...

I'll be back and read it again later in a better mood.