Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tender Morsels

If forced to choose whether a novel I read would have an excellent story or be excellently written, I would choose story every time. Luckily, the YA novels I have been reading lately—Fly on the Wall by E. Lockhart, The Order of Odd Fish by James Kennedy, and now Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan—have made that choice unnecessary. Margo Lanagan’s words seem to lift up from the page and coalesce into a picture around the reader’s head. In Tender Morsels, Lanagan’s lyrical writing brings to life a character who has been so misused by the real world that she prefers to live in a facsimile where everything is safe but no one is real apart from herself and her daughters.

After her father’s death, Liga thinks she is finally free from his abuse and able to raise the infant daughter she bore from it. But after her brutal gang rape at the hands of some young men from her village, she despairs and is ready to kill both her baby and herself. An unknown powerful force intervenes and sends Liga to her own personal heaven, where the townspeople are kind and don’t care that she has had two babies out of wedlock, and people and places she dislikes are replaced with unthreatening extras and park land. Liga happily settles into this world, learning embroidery, tending her garden, and raising her daughters. Branza, her eldest, is content to remain in her mother’s paradise. But Urrda, her younger daughter, seems to long for the real world and its passions even though she doesn’t know that it exists.

Tender Morsels tells the story of Liga and her daughters’ return to the world and their struggle to adjust to a place where horrible things are allowed to happen to good people and no one finds out or punishes the evildoers. The novel seems to argue that you cannot fully experience life without exposing yourself to disappointment, pain, and anguish, but that love and family can see you through these hardships.

At the end of the book, in a Reader’s Guide interview, Margo Lanagan says she hopes her readers would “look up from the last page, shake themselves, and find it hard to come back to the real world.” Tender Morsels is shelved in the YA section in this country, but it was sold as an adult novel in Australia and definitely wouldn’t be out of place there. Lanagan has created a book whose readers, regardless of age, will certainly need to shake themselves in order to make it back to the real world.

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