I don’t remember why I picked up Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels. Sometimes there are small giveaways that I can trace back. I mean, I’m totally swayed by those cover blurbs, and I can look at a book and see immediately why I bought it. “Miriam Toews thinks this is the best book she has ever read!” “Mark Haddon knows no better book than the one you are right now holding in your hands.” “OMG we are talking Neil Gaiman here, he seriously stayed up all night to finish reading this, I mean, he even phoned all of his friends to say, ‘Do not contact me for the next twelve hours, I will be otherwise preoccupied.’”
I actually think it might have been the recommendation of Tender Morsels by Neil Gaiman, like through a jacket or cover blurb, or maybe he and Margo Lanagan were speaking together somewhere, that finally made me buy the book. I picked it up around Christmas a few years ago, and it was one of those books where the season completely matched with the tone and feel of the book. Lanagan revisits the Grimm fairy tale “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” which is about two sisters who live together in the woods. Lanagan’s sisters are Branza and Urdda, the daughters of protagonist Liga, a young woman who retreats into an idealized fantasy world to escape the all too real experiences she has lived through in the real one. She makes a home to raise her daughters in, but as elements of reality intrude upon her fantasy world, a blending and breaking down of the border in between occurs and returns Liga and her daughters to the real world again.
The narrative Lanagan crafts is enough on its own to deserve praise, but her writing and style elevates the novel to a place of exceptional young adult literature. For both of these reasons it was awarded a Prinz Honor Award in 2009. Lanagan almost creates a language of her own by experimenting with sentence structure, cadence, emphasis, and dialect. The subtle play with internal rhyme and structure reinforces the idea that this book reworks a fairy tale. She adapts language to create a setting that is both medieval and familiar, yet one that is also slightly changed. Her language is a hinge that opens and closes to our expectations. The language creates a complete immersion into this world; it calls for a slow and deliberate read that allows the reader to construct the world, uncovering it piece by piece as the story progresses.
Tender Morsels reminds me so much of Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves,” which is itself a return to the traditional “Little Red Riding Hood” story. Lanagan introduces to Tender Morsels a bear who befriends Liga and her daughters in the fantastical world. However, this bear represents an intrusion: a man dressed in the skin of a bear in the real world finds a way into Liga’s place where he is transformed into a real bear. Similarly, Carter’s short story blurs the boundary between man and wolf in her own portrayal of the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and it is unclear throughout the story whether or not the wolf is human, animal, or a little of each. Lanagan’s use of this confusion is both inventive and effective, and emphasizes the focus on borders and boundaries in the novel.
Most affecting, however, is that Tender Morsels focuses on small, quiet moments, balanced within the larger ones. For example, Lanagan writes,
When a girl of fourteen wants a thing – when she has wanted it all her conscious life; when she senses it near and bends all her hope, and all her will, and all her power to it – sometimes, sometimes, her self and her desires will be of such material that worlds will move for her. Or parts of worlds, their skins particularly, will soften to her pressure, and break in a thousands small and undramatic ways, so that she may reach through, so that what seemed a wall reveals itself to be only the thought of a wall, or a wall constructed of bricks of smoke, mortared with mist. There is a smell to such workings, and Urdda smelled it here and now at the rim of the bear-scent, as if someone had held a flaming brand near that bear-fur so that it bean to singe and smoke and reek. (176)
It would make sense, you know, if it was Neil Gaiman’s recommendation on a blurb or a review or a blog that swayed me to buy this. It’s so much like Gaiman’s own The Graveyard Book, which is itself episodic in construction, each chapter a story told incrementally throughout the youth of his protagonist, Bod. This episodic construction allows for the representation of overarching moments interspersed between quiet ones. In Tender Morsels, Liga, Branza, and Urdda grow across time, and Lanagan moves deftly through their experiences to capture all moments, both small and large.