Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Ah, Margo Lanagan. I have to say at the outset, I love this woman’s style of writing. It is dark, it must be
said, and it is ... otherworldly. She came to my attention a few years back with her Touching Earth Lightly, a confronting YA novel about friendship and loss. Even more memorable was the collection of short stories released in Australia in 2004, Black Juice. In that collection is some imagery you haven’t - you perhaps can’t have - come across before, and the one that has stayed with me for nearly ten years now is the image from Singing My Sister Down. It needs to be read to do it justice. Go on, find yourself a copy. Otherworldly indeed. Margo is winning prizes in all sorts of fantasy categories, and as someone who doesn’t really read fantasy (well, I will - I just haven’t made it my mission yet), I find it fascinating that I’m so mad for Margo. She crosses over, that’s for sure. Her writing is literary, but more than that, she creates a new language with each story she tells and where her writing does dip its toes into the pool that is fantasy, it also keeps us mostly in the world we know so it doesn’t become - well - too strange. That may seem odd when I’m reviewing a book about people falling in love with bears, where people in fact turn into bears.
I’ve read reviews for this book all over the web, and I can’t find any that reflectwhat I felt about this novel. Maybe I’m seeing something that’s not there, I don’t know. To my mind, this novel is perhaps one of the most beautiful love songs from a mother to her children. That might sound mawkish but it is not in the least bit so. It’s a dark, harsh, brutal novel written by someone with a very big heart. Liga has two daughters, Branza and Urdda, who are spawned under truly dire circumstances, and she is finally able (through magic) to repair to a world that is a heaven on earth - where the three of them are safe, where there are no dangers, there is no alcohol, and they are able to befriend animals (in particular bears, and a wolf). It is the kind of world I wish I could retreat to and raise my little ones. Inevitably, this world doesn't last and there are lessons for the three women, and for the reader. For me. And this - this is how I feel as a mother:
How could Branza sleep, she wondered, how could Urdda run her errands in the town, and not be aware how their mam was being attacked, beaten, crushed, by her own loving fear for them? She hardly knew what to do, it had been so long since such strong feelings had borne down on her. It was like carrying another creature inside her, and nothing so benign and natural as a baby. Undamped, untamed, the pain and exultation of her attachment to them blew through Liga like a storm-wind carrying sharp leaves and struggling birds. How long she had known her daughters, and how well, and in what extraordinary vividness and detail! How blithely she had done the work of rearing them - it seemed to her now that she had cause for towering disabling anxieties about them; that what had seemed little plaints and sorrows in their childhoods were in fact off-drawings from much greater tragedies, from which she had tried to keep them but could not. And the joys she had had of them, too - their embraces and laughter - it was all too intense to be endured, this connection with them, which was a miniature of the connection with the forces that drove planet and season - the relentlessness of them, the randomness, the susceptability to glory, to accident, to disaster. How soft had been her life in that other place, how safe and mild! And here she was, back where terrors could immobilise her, and wonders too; where life might become gulps of strong ale rather than sips of bloom-tea. She did not know whether she was capable of lifting the cup, let alone drinking the contents.
Margo has put the inexpressible into words! The lengths a mother will go to protect and shield her children, the burdens she will endure - I haven’t read a better book that illuminates motherhood and its agonies yet!
Researching this, I have come across quite hefty criticisms for this novel for its handling of rape and revenge, its depiction of incest and other weighty material. I would much rather applaud Lanagan for tackling these brutalities, for not shying away from illustrating the human lust for revenge without moralising, and in a manner that is in keeping with the style of the novel. I know this book will stay with me, in much the same way that Singing My Sister Down has stayed with me. Its bears, its magic, its wonderful witches, its littlees, its annual bear run, its woods - they are all part of a world to which I’ll return again! What’s next, Margo?