Book Review: Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan

Here’s how I imagine it must have gone:

The woman went about her work calmly but with determination. Cupped in her hands before her, on the table, was a mysterious jewel; depending on the light in which and the angle from which viewed, sometimes the jewel glittered with color and sometimes seemed black enough to suck the air as well as the light from the room. The woman bent, and put her face over the jewel, and she breathed on it. As we watched, the jewel changed form, became a living, a visibly breathing creature.

It both made us clap, and scared the hell out of us…

The woman was Margo Lanagan; the jewel, the fairy tale of “Snow-White and Rose-Red.” And the creature? Oh my, the creature: Lanagan’s 2008 young-adult novel, Tender Morsels.

My review of this book is now online at The Book Book blog.

I can’t tell you how eager I’ve been to get this review posted. I love the story the book tells and I love how it tells it. The Book Book review is pretty long, so I’ll just refer you there to understand why I loved reading Tender Morsels and expect to remember the experience for a looooong time.

As I mention in the review, I came across many, many passages I wanted to quote; I finally selected the opening paragraphs, to make a point about both the style of the book and its fierce refusal to be read as a simple, conventional fairy tale. Here’s another passage, probably the one I would have preferred just on its own merits.

To an extent it reads better if you already know something about the characters and what they’ve lived through to this point, over three-fourths of the way through. But really, all you need to know is that Liga is a woman in perhaps her mid-40s, who has never danced — has resisted it, indeed; Ramstrong is a man, a good friend of hers, who is urging her to dance with him; Todda is Ramstrong’s wife; and all three of them are present at a festival of feasting and merriment where dancing is practically mandatory.

Liga resisted at first, but Ramstrong urged her: “Come, ’tis a simple enough step, the simplest” and Todda: “Go on, Liga; I promise he will not trip over your feet,” and the music was very easy-rhythmed and enticing, and before she knew it, her hand was in a man’s and she was being led, heart pounding, in among the couples.

Oh my gracious, she thought, but the music and the chatter and fire’s roar and crackle hid that whimper she gave, that gasp. And Ramstrong turned to her, all kindness and relaxment, the most reassuring face in the world, and caught her other hand, and then she was dancing with a man for the first time, held by a man for the first time in her life without any force or evil intention. The fire made the faces around them glow and the eyes sparkle; she knew she must be as kindly lit, and she knew her hair, dressed and beribboned by her excited daughters that afternoon, was more becoming than it had ever been. Terrified, dazzled, and elated that she could dance in company and no one could discern that she did not belong, did not deserve this, she followed the steps she had learnt with her mam; danced with her giant mam; danced with her tiny girls on the grass around the cottage, on the matting on the cottage floor, but which were meant — didn’t she know? couldn’t she see now? — for nights such as this: warm, dark, and sparkling and glowing with bonfire light, with music all around like a spell, like a magical cordial, to be drunk in deep drafts from the air. With people all around: their voices one over the other; their smells — now sharp sweat, now the cedar and lavender of gowns stored yearlong just for this dancing.

Highly recommended for RAMH readers. Do not be put off by the YA label; do not read this novel with its alleged YA-ness in your head at all. (Apparently it was published as an adult novel in Lanagan’s native Australia. I’ll leave anything I might say about its marketing elsewhere hanging, unstated, in mid-air.)

If you’re still not sure, you can preview it at Google Books. (Note that the cover there is from the 2010 edition.)

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  1. I’m seldom put off by the YA label; sometimes books written as YA are quite good and very memorable. I loved A Walk to Remember (book, not movie).

    I’ll see if I can find this one.

  2. Darc: I think you’d like this one. As I say, though, just go into it with clear eyes and well-braced! :)

  3. ooo … now i want to read it. It makes sense that they’d pub it as YA; fantasy of this nature is selling well in YA and just average on the adult fantasy shelves.

  4. Fabulous review.

    Do you know Eisha and I interviewed her years ago? It’s at the 7-Imp archives. Isn’t she obscenely talented?

    Now I want to re-read it.

  5. Eileen: I think, from what I can tell of your tastes, that this would fit very neatly into your TBR pile.

    In the Seven Impossible Things… interview which Jules mentions in her comment, below, Lanagan talks a little about the division between YA and adult fiction. She seems to like the YA label for, among other things, keeping most adults away from her work themselves, although they’re happy to buy it (unread) as gifts for the younger ones. :)

    You might be interested in Margo Lanagan’s blog, which she’s been maintaining since 2005, and in particular the entries tagged “tender morsels” — many of which include quotations from (even unfavorable) reviews.

    Jules: Yes. She knocked me out. I haven’t read any of her short stories yet, although that interview (linked to in my comment to Eileen, above) mentioned a couple that caught my eye. Especially the one called “Red Nose Day,” whose inception she describes this way:

    “Red Nose Day” started off as a post-it note saying ‘
    ‘Snipers picking off clowns’, and I can’t remember the circumstances in which I wrote that down, but I have to say, I thought the idea was a complete hoot, being a clown-hater from way back, and I have been told by fellow clown-haters that the world is a better place for someone having given the idea so much airtime.


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