Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels is a book that left me with many conflicting feelings. It's a book that makes you think. And think a lot, about things from which your mind shudders away and doesn't want to acknowledge. The writing was beautiful, yes. The characters, I'm sure, would stand out to me on a second reading. But honestly, when I closed this book, the main thought in my head was, "What is the message?" There is a message, I know. Multiple messages. And while the writing and the characters and the dialect and the magic and all the rest were great, I know that they are not the aspects that will stay with me long-term. Instead, I'll be struggling with what Lanagan wanted to say, about rape, forgiveness, vengeance and a lot of heavy words.
Tender Morsels is first the story of Liga, a teenager living in the forest with her father, who repeatedly rapes her for many years, and then goes into town seeking herbs to help her (unknowingly) abort their children. When Da finally leaves her, Liga gives birth to her daughter Branza and is ready to begin fresh. But then five village boys come to visit her isolated cottage and take turns having their way with her, leaving her broken and pregnant once more with her second daughter Urdda. With help, Liga escapes her horror-filled existence to live in a perfect-dream world of her own making where people are kind, if vague and one-dimensional, where she can raise her two daughters in peace. But the real world isn't ready to give this family up, and repeated visits from other people leave Urdda, at least, wanting more than her simple existence, eventually forcing the happy family to return to the real world and live their true lives.
Continuing after the jump will lead you into plot spoilers for this book because really, I just want to talk out my reactions to various plot points more than anything else. If that bothers you, then be warned!
highly controversial. The controversy is due in large part to one scene in which Urdda unknowingly uses magic to punish the five men whose gang rape led to her (Urdda's) conception, in pretty graphic detail. While I dislike this scene, too, it's not so much for the "using rape as vengeance" issue as the "Let's not follow up with these five men in any way, shape or form" issue. The scene occurs- it's not super graphic, but it's very clear what's going on- and then it's over. But we have no proof that the men even know why they were chosen, the townspeople speculate with no resolution, and we don't get a real sense for how Liga or Urdda feel afterward about the revenge part (only about the actual act that occurred). I understand that it was very, very difficult to Liga to talk about what happened to her, but even my acknowledgement of that led me to a question.
As the book nears its end, Liga begins to open her heart more to people around her and amazingly contemplate the idea that perhaps she can be happy with a man. Only to have that hope killed when the man she wants decides that he wants Branza. This is horribly depressing, even though it results in some beautiful writing:
Everything stopped- all sound, all movement, life. Just for a moment it stopped, while her hope, while her illusions, detached themselves from the cliff-face of what was real, what was likely, and collapsed around her. And upon her, crushing her, deafening her, raising a suffocating dust.So my question is: Does this book claim that Liga's life thus far so shattered her that she will never be able to move on and experience adult love? While Liga lives in her dream world, she ages disproportionately to the real world. This makes sense to me because the experiences she went through so disturbed her that she lost all sense of innocence and wonder, and wanted only to be content and at peace. But when she finally comes to face the real world again, the best years of her life have passed her by. She is too old for marriage, for starting afresh, for regaining that spark of excitement of budding love or a new life path. Instead, she watches one daughter set determinedly upon the path for self-fulfillment via a rewarding career and the other daughter settle into a life of domestic bliss. Neither of these options are open to her because when she should have been exploring her options, beginning her life, she was closed off to everyone else, surviving in her happy place, and missing out on what life has to offer the rest of us. Liga's story was so, so sad. And while I think she may eventually settle into contentment, sprinkled with a heavy dose of wistfulness, I didn't end the book feeling like she would ever be happy. When she was ready to be happy and embrace life, she found that it had passed her by.
That leads me to think the book is saying something I don't want it to say- something truly heartbreaking.
The third upset is one that occurs far too often, and that I understand my reaction to very well, and it is racial stereotyping. Branza is Liga's daughter born of incest. She is pale and blond and beautiful. She is good and kind and sweet. Urdda is Liga's daughter from gang rape, and her father is a "dark foreigner." Urdda is dark and inquisitive and beautiful. She wants to escape and is more independent and rebellious. She is also a witch.
In a way, I can almost see Lanagan using Branza and Urdda to symbolize the race struggle, except that the race struggle in Australia (and Europe, I assume) is very different than it is in the Americas. I thought maybe Branza's feelings of being "at home" in the perfect-dream world, and then coming to accept her lot in the real world, were symbolic of the way Caucasians (again, in America) are generally sure of their backgrounds and their cultures. Branza never questions her mother about her father. She is content with her life the way that it is. Similarly, Caucasions can trace where they came from and revive old customs, if they want. Urdda, on the other hand, wants to know. She wants to know about her mother's past and how she came to be born. Similarly, many African-Americans don't know which country or culture or family they came from, originally, if they were brought over as slaves. Even after coming to the US, slaves' lives were often in upheaval, with spouses and children being bought and sold, torn away from their families with no way to trace their lineage. But Lanagan is Australian, and her story is set in a fantastical version of Eastern Europe, and so I don't know if that is what she meant by the sisters' genetic makeup. It bothered me, regardless.
And those are really the Big Three things I felt when I finished this book. I could tell you about the writing style and more about the characters, but those are not what stand out most vividly to me. So instead, if you've read this book (or even if you haven't but want to weigh in), I'd love for you to grapple with me on the issues above. What are your thoughts?