Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Musings: Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels cover
You are pure-hearted, and lovely and you have never done a moment's wrong.  But you are a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks your heart.

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!

Tender Morsels Cover
This book is deep.  It is also 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.

Tender Morsels Cover
Another thing upset me about this book, but in a different way.  The two above upsets are good thinking upsets that I do not come across often in my reading or my general Inner Thoughts, and so I am grateful for them.  They made me consider issues and decisions and good choices and bad choices, the concept of right and wrong and how a life is made.  Big thoughts and reactions within myself that are so complex and muddled that I cannot understand them.  And that is good.

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?

24 comments:

  1. I think I'm probably the only person in the book blogging world who hasn't read this. Even though it's controversial, I'd still like to. It's good when a book leaves you with questions, but I can understand the frustration when you can't get the answers. A very nice and honest review, Aarti:) I'll be sure to come back again once I've read the book.

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  2. I'm afraid that the rape-for-vengeance thing DID bother me a lot, not just the concept but the way it was portrayed and described. I felt like the message from that part was not one I wanted to see at all, and contradicted many of the other messages in the book. I loved the other parts of this book, but that part has tainted it for me.

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  3. chasingbawa - It's strange, because I feel that while a ton of bloggers have read this one, very few other people have heard of it, even though it won all sorts of rewards.

    Amanda - I disliked the rape for vengeance part, too, but I feel that if there had been SOME sort of follow-up, then it would have helped. In much the same way, there wasn't really any conclusion to the boy-wolf arc. I feel we are kind of on the same page, though- that the clothman thing was so out of kilter with the rest of the book that it required explanation, and we got none.

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  4. It just sounds so sad and I do not wanna read a book with lots of rapes :(

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  5. Wow Aarti, just wow. You ask so many pertinent questions and hypothesize on so much about this story that now I want to read it if only to discuss it with you! It does sound like there is a lot here to discuss and ponder over, and the fact that it deals with such hard issues is surprising to me, as I had heard the book mentioned before, but had no idea all this was going on. You hit this review out of the park. Thank you!

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  6. I've heard a lot about this book but I think your post here is the most in-depth and provocative one I've read to date. I do think this book would make me far too uncomfortable (which is probably the point) to actually read, so I'm glad that I got to read your thoughts and feelings about it instead!

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  7. Blodeuedd - Well, it's not a FUN book, no, but it's a good one to get you thinking.

    Zibilee - It would be great to discuss this book with you! I have a feeling you'd have the same difficulties with it that I did.

    Steph - Yes, I think Lanagan DOES want to make her readers uncomfortable, but I just wish there was some more resolution and not such a bleak ending...
    Glad I gave you food for thought even if the book won't work out :-)

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  8. I didn't read the spoiler section, just in case, but WOW...this book sounds intense. I always love discussing books with others, especially when they bring up a lot of conflicting questions and issues for me, so I totally understand your need to talk it out!

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  9. I don't have a stance on the stuff you mention, but it's interesting you mention the race business! I feel like I haven't heard much about that in other reviews -- just another reason I don't want to read this book. The subject matter generally sounds way intense for me.

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  10. Fantastic review. You brought up so many great points and questions that I never really thought about asking when reading this book. I also didn't pick up on the race thing, but it seems like I was a bit dimwitted when it comes to this book-- reading it more for 'pleasure' than for analysis. You make me want to pick it up again and look for those Big Three. If I can stomach it.

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  11. Erin - Yes, I always love when a friend reads the same book as me, around the same time, so that we can dissect it and compare reactions! This time, I just made all of blogosphere party to my thoughts ;-)

    Jenny - I haven't seen much on the race business, either, which surprises me. It was something that really stuck with me, though, because it seemed so stereotypical whereas everything else was being bent in all sorts of uncomfortable directions.

    She - I don't think you're dimwitted with the book. I think everyone reads a different book and can pick up nuances other people do not. Perhaps I'm just sensitive to the race thing... who knows?

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  12. If you're sensitive to the race thing it's because casual racism is so freaking prevalent.

    I hadn't heard of the book and it doesn't sound like something I'd want to read - it annoys me when authors "make" me think - as if I wouldn't otherwise, but I do appreciate a writer with something to say. Did she say it? Or was it just provocative?

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  13. Wow, Aarti! This book has been on my radar since Nymeth first wrote about it years ago but your review has definitely added TM to my summer reading list.

    I had no idea that the two sisters were so different. Your review is the first one that I've read that even brought up race.

    You did a great job of bringing this book to life for those of us who haven't read it yet.

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  14. Amazing review! I too had not considered any racial implications. I was very involved with the bear symbolism! (and what was with that gigantic bear "member"?)

    Initially, I had the same reaction to you to the ending, i.e., that it was sad for Liga, but Nymeth argued to me that it could be seen as a very good ending because it requires that a woman learn to love herself and her life without a man. I.e., as Lanagan states on her blog, she does see the more feminist ending as positive – it’s just not the one we associate with Cinderella and the like. I think I'm still not entirely convinced either way!

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  15. Carrie - Well, Nymeth told me that in the original fairy tale, the sisters are one dark and one fair, so maybe the race thing isn't as big a deal as I made it out to be. But it would have been nice if just once, the fair one had been the rebel!
    I think the author did have something to say. She was provocative, yes, but I didn't feel forced to think in a negative manner. I enjoyed the challenge :)

    Vasilly - Aw, thanks! I don't know why more people don't bring up the race thing. It felt to me like a major theme, obviously, as I devoted a pretty long paragraph to it above...

    rhapsody - I didn't get that, either! I admit, much of the bear symbolism was above my head. As well as the bizarre midget-man and his unkind ways...
    I don't know if Liga being shot down in love is particularly "feminist." More feminist would be for the guy to propose and for her to turn him down ;-)

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  16. Stellar review! I read a sample of this one on my Nook and at the time I chose not to buy it. However, having read several reviews of it now, I think it's one I'll try because, quite simply, I want to be part of this conversation!!! Very interesting stuff.

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  17. This is why I love following your blog. You are so thoughtful about your reviews. You never cease to add books to my tbr.

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  18. That is SO interesting Aarti. I interpreted Urdda as being a white brunette (a la 'a dark and handsome stranger'), rather than having a darker skin tone! (Hello white privilege: we seem to run into each other a lot.) I actually just reread the Grimms' fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red, and it talks about how Snow White is the blonde one and the stereotypically 'feminine' one; it seems in a lot of historical lit blonde girls/women are portrayed as more infantile/passive/docile/etc. And I would argue that the contrast between also Urdda & Branza falls into the literary pattern of one rebellious sister, one traditional one. I loved Urdda far more than Branza!

    However, I am a white, blonde woman, so of course it was easy for me to blithely overlook the racial stereotypes. I've been thinking of rereading this one, and you've definitely pushed me into it. The parallels you drew for the black/white experience of Americans is so perfect, even if Lanagan didn't intend it.

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  19. Andi - Ha, that's part of the reason why I read it! To be part of a very vivid and strong conversation- it's great to discuss literature like this, when people have such strong opinions about it.

    Katy - Aww, thank you! That's the nicest thing someone has said to me for a while :-)

    Eva - Oh, interesting! I guess I assumed the "dark" part was partly due to her having a "foreign" father, and so automatically connected (possibly incorrect?) dots on her background and race.

    Others have mentioned that the original fairy tale also has a darker-haired girl and a lighter-haired girl, in which case maybe Lanagan just took it a step further, but WHY?

    I agree that the tradition exists of one rebel/one docile, but WHY must the rebellious one be the dark one all the time? I wish that those stereotypes would flip once in a while. I loved Urdda more, too (not sure how anyone could really LOVE Branza), but that doesn't make the racial aspect any better, in my view.

    And I'm glad the black/white experience made sense! I wasn't sure if I voiced that well at all, so glad it clicked for you :-)

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  20. I loved this book, a rare five star for me - and I am getting the feeling that maybe there is too much analyzing going on around it.

    There is a danger of going too deep - but that is what I think good literature is about. It really makes you think.

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  21. Shellie - Hmm, I assume you're talking about the racism issue I bring up above. I don't think this is the sort of book that should NOT be delved into, personally. It would be pretty tough to read just on the surface, considering the issues it tackles.

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  22. I enjoyed reading your review, Aarti. You've raised some issues I'd not thought deeply about, and expanded some others. Hmm. I saw difference, but didn't focus on any racial component to that difference. I *think* it's because the story of Snow-White and Rose-Red was a part of my growing up, aad in this story I was more focussed on other aspects. What constitutes good or evil is not always clearly differentiated. Liga would have had a different life without her daughters: would it have been better? I wonder how much our own reactions vary according to age? I liked Urdda (whose name I mispelled in my own review)because she was more energetic and externally focussed. Fantasy doesn't always work for me, but this did. All I need do now is analyse why :-)
    Jenny in Canberra

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  23. I have not read this book yet, but when I read your paragraph on racial stereotypes I wondered at you talking about Eastern Europe. It immediately made me think of stereotyping of Jews, especially given the hiostorical opposition between them and "blonde, blue eyes" etc. And also because you remarked on the questions asked by Urrda about where she came from etc, as a metaphor for the diaspora. I know I am only giving you a very weak hypothesis, but I do wonder if it is a stereotype like the one you associate it with per se and if it does not rather relate to stereotyping that is done over the world at large in which the "white/fair" person has often been privileged. Again, I may be completely in the wrong.

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  24. Iris, that's a really interesting way of looking at it and makes much more sense- the idea of displaced people in general, and not a specific race/ethnicity/etc. Thanks very much for sharing! We could both be completely wrong, but it's interesting to think about it :-)

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