Margo Lanagan,
Tender Morsels
(Knopf, 2008)

Considering that, within its first 50 pages, Margo Lanagan's book contains child molestation, sex and abuse, it's not hard to see why this ostensibly young-adult book might be banned. That would be a mistake. Neither didactic nor explicit, Tender Morsels is a compelling story and a psychologically acute examination of the repercussions of actions, both well-intentioned and otherwise.

The setting is long ago and far away in a small cottage by the woods, but make no mistake: this is no fairy tale. Here 13-year-old Liga comes uneasily of age, kept in ignorance and isolation by her brutish father. Two years and nameless horrors later, Liga manages to escape, not only from the clutches of her father, but also from the cruelty of the townspeople, and indeed, from reality altogether. Liga's new home is a softer, kinder version of reality in which no one can harm Liga or her two young daughters Branza and Urdda -- one snow white, the other rose red.

Given that bears and greedy dwarfs are also involved, fairy-tale enthusiasts will see more than a passing resemblance to "Snow White & Rose Red," but to call Tender Morsels a retelling would be to dismiss its audacious imagination and fully fleshed settings and female characters. This is a coming-of-age story of not one but three women: Liga's violent, Branza's delayed and Urdda's magical. When their dreamy, idealized world begins to disintegrate, the three women have no choice but to wake up.

Despite its magical premise, Tender Morsels never flinches from bittersweet reality. Women grow older even in a magical world, enchanted bears sometimes eat people, and people can be cruel, unthinking, hurtful and blind -- even those who love you most.

Stately in pace and with few (OK, one) likable male characters, Tender Morsels is unlikely to gain a large male following. With its subtleties, unexpressed sorrows and mature themes, it might not even gain a large young-adult following. It's not at all a comforting book to read. But it is a quietly powerful and unflinching story that roots itself in your bones and weaves its world of sorrows and joys around you.

review by
Jennifer Mo

29 November 2008

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