Readalong – Review of “Tender Morsels” by Margo Lanagan

Tender Morsels is a retelling of the Brothers Grimm story “Snow White and Rose Red” but with a feminist twist. There isn’t much longing by women for rescue by a man in this book, and in fact princely males are few and far between. But more than that, for the most part the women are self-sufficient, and while some women do long for physical affirmation, one guesses that if they explored lesbianism they would be just fine. However, the author is toppling enough fairy castles as it is, and no Happily Ever After takes place on the Isle of Lesbos.

Since the story does follow the Grimm tale so closely, I would recommend that would-be readers of this book begin with a short version of the fairy tale you can read online. There is much in the story that seems inexplicable otherwise, and furthermore it will add to the appreciation of how the author has changed the story.

Snow-White and Rose-Red, illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Lanagan’s story starts out more violently than the fairy tale, no doubt to justify the feminist turn. (The U.K.’s Guardian calls it “a dark and shocking reworking of the Snow White and Rose Red fairytale” before noting that it won the World Fantasy Award for best novel.) The mother of the two girls is not a widow in Tender Morsels. Rather, Liga Longfield, a fourteen-year-old girl, lives alone with her father who rapes and beats her repeatedly. He is the father of her first daughter Branza.

Mercifully, the father is killed (or indeed, he would have had Liga abort the baby, as she had to do with two others, thanks to his having paid Annie, a local witch, for abortive powders). But Liga’s life does not improve as she had thought it would. Boys in the village, seeing that she is unmarried but with a child, take her to be “a slut,” and gang-rape her, also abusing her much in the process.

In despair and fear of further attacks, Liga tries to kill herself and Branza (not yet knowing she is pregnant from the gang rape). But a glowing magical being takes her away instead to a parallel world that is Liga’s version of heaven. The boys who raped her are not there; in fact, all of the men are barely present at all, and the women are friendly, accepting, and generous. And Liga’s second child, Urdda, is born.

Branza (“Snow White”) and Urdda (“Rose Red”) have very different personalities and dispositions, but they also both seem like pretty normal girls. Liga stays fairly zoned out in her “heaven,” content that she does not have to obsess over protecting herself and her children. The three of them go about their lovely, quiet existence, until incursions from the real world begin to occur. One is by an irascible dwarf, who comes and goes and is finally eliminated by a bear, another creature who has started to appear in Liga’s world.

US Hardcover of Tender Morsels (showing Bear #1) Illustration by Shaun Tan

The first bear they see is actually Davit Ramstrong, a caring and gentle young man from parallel reality who befriends the little family in his guise as a bear. He goes back to his world and a second bear, another boy from Liga’s original town – Teasel Wurledge – arrives, who is not so innocuous. But although he eats the dwarf, he does not hurt any of the women. (Before being consumed, the dwarf tried to convince the bear to eat the young girls instead of him, claiming they were “tender morsels” the bear would like better.) He does try to have sex with Branza, but she rebuffs him and then he too, leaves.

US Hardcover of Tender Morsels (showing Bear #2) Illustration by Jody Hewgill

Urdda, now age 14, loved having the companionship of the bears, and longs to see what else is in this magical other place. She manages to follow Teasel back to his world, and she begins to live among them. She gets a job as witch Annie’s assistant. It is frightening at first in the real world: she can’t figure out why everything was so similar, and yet so different:

“And when [what she saw] had exhausted her by not assembling into any kind of sense, she raised her gaze to the familiar stars, and to the cheese-round moon, rough-faced and impersonal, coasting along the cloud-streaks above the black trees.”

Eventually she understood that the other world, where she was born, was her mother’s heaven:

“It is the world as my mother would have wanted it, for us all to be safe in, her and Branza and me…It is quite like here, only simpler, with all the cruel people taken out, all the rudeness and suddenness, and much of the noise and bustle.”

There was no alcohol or currency or poverty either, in this more perfect world.

Urdda explains this to the sorceress, Miss Dance, who originally trained Annie, and who complies with Urdda’s request to bring her mother and Branza out from Liga’s heaven also, to be with her. Miss Dance agrees; she is critical of Liga for her overprotectiveness, charging that the girls have not been able to learn how to cope with and overcome adversity, but I am not inclined to agree. Why would Liga have thought they couldn’t always stay in her heaven?

Liga is very afraid at first to be back in reality, but even Liga had grown restless with perfection. She found she wanted to be “seen and known and some way understood” by a man who didn’t want to hurt her, but perhaps was kind and loving like the first bear had been.

All of them have to learn to deal with the real world and all its aleatory cruelty, as well as its occasional bliss. But they have had no practice, so it will not come easily.

Discussion: Generally I don’t read fairy tales. One reason is certainly that their message is so patriarchal. But Lanagan eliminates that problem.

Another reason I tend to eschew fairy tales, however, is that they are loaded with symbols and subliminal meanings that I don’t always understand. And yet I got caught up in the poignant story of these three women; it is a story that pokes up through the fantastical elements like the first crocuses in spring.

But some of the symbolism seems so central, it can’t be ignored. The bears get the most attention in this retelling. In general, bears can be said to represent nature, coexistence with nature, desires, drives, and the latent beast in all living things.

In this story, the bears and their cares play a large role. The first male bear responds to the openness and trust of the family of women, and tries to be nurturing in return, although it is clear to him and others that he is just holding his bestiality at bay. The second bear makes much less of an attempt to domesticate his bestial urges, and apparently has a very large male member he can put to use when his size and strength have gotten him the female of his choice. Female bears thus caught have little recourse to intercourse, but when Branza is faced with the potential of rape, somehow she has the wherewithal to escape. This excellent outcome suggests Branza did learn something from living in “heaven” after all.

There is some lovely writing in this book. To give just one example of many:

“The last blue of evening, close around us, shielded us from eyes, and yet some stars winked there and were festive also and who could mind their watching? And moths flew soft and silver. The stars silvered them, I guessed… they were low like a mist, the moths, like a dancing mist, large and small like snow wafting on a breeze, as if the very air were so alive that it had burst into these creatures, taken wing and fluttered in all these different directions.”

The ending is interesting because it is not ambiguous, but still can be interpreted in one of two very different ways. One would be that it was a sad ending, because it did not end in the traditional way (i.e., with a woman/damsel “saved by the right man/prince”). The other interpretation would be that it was a very good ending because it requires that a woman learn to love herself and her life without a man. I.e., as Lanagan states on her blog, she does see the more feminist ending as positive – it’s just not the one we associate with Cinderella and the like (up through and including “Pretty Woman,” in which the Julia Roberts character gets rescued by a handsome, rich man on a white horse bearing a lance made out of roses).

Pretty Woman, 1990, famously ending with the line: And She Rescues Him Right Back

Feminism really informs much of this book, from designating the women as “tender morsels” to showing the men as exhibiting “boofhead male behaviour” (See the interview with Margo Lanagan in Clarkesworld Magazine).

Evaluation: This is a most interesting and thought-provoking retelling of a fairy tale. It didn’t quite win my heart as much as the “Fractured Fairy Tales” segment on “Rocky and Bullwinkle” but I loved the idea of upending the usual patriarchal assumptions. To me, much of it was sad, and not because no knight on horseback rescued Liga, but because of all the pain she endured in the beginning, and the shame she felt at the end. I just wanted Liga to be happy!

Rating: 3.5/5

Nota Bene: Although there is considerable “sex and violence” in the first fifty pages of this ostensible YA book, it is depicted as obliquely as possible. Later on, there is more sex that is not so unambiguous, but it takes place between bears …. In the Clarkesworld Magazine interview referenced above, Ms. Lanagan has this to say about the controversy over this book’s content:

“I know the parts of life that I like to explore in fiction are often the parts that many people don’t like to even look at, let alone spend time wondering about, so I have to expect the occasional knee-jerk reaction.

But really, compared to the movies and just your normal day’s worth of free-to-air television, my stories are quite tame. I sometimes think it’s just easier to attack a book, because it isn’t backed up by so much money and celebrity power, than it is to complain about a movie or TV show you think is showing sex or violence too graphically. The movie/TV powers-that-be tend to shrug and say, ‘Well, no one’s forcing you to watch,’ but the same rule rarely seems to be quoted in relation to books—their simple presence, their availability, say, in a school library, is enough to have some people *cough*Ms Palin*cough* foaming at the mouth.”

For links to other modern interpretations of Snow White and Rose Red, click here.

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21 Responses to Readalong – Review of “Tender Morsels” by Margo Lanagan

  1. Sandy says:

    First, my eyes kinda bulged out when I read this was a YA novel!!! Lotta rape, incest and bestiality going on here for teenagers! Yikes. I’ve heard so much about this book, but I’d been hanging out in the shadows and seeing what every had to say about it. Reviews have certainly been mixed. I’m usually not sharp enough to get the symbolism, which is another reason why I didn’t jump all over this one. I’m impressed that you tackled it, but I’m still not there I don’t think…

  2. Steph says:

    I’ve seen this one kicking about the book blogosphere and thought it was an interesting pick for the shared read. Having read synopses of the book, I don’t think it’s one I would enjoy. I just finished Lolita, and that had quite enough (or perhaps too much!) icky sex stuff for me!

  3. I do think this makes a great group read. It is a long time since I read it so I can’t remember the details, but I wasn’t a massive fan. I guess that the fairy tale elements just weren’t convincing enough. I loved that opening section, but hated the introduction of the bears! I wish Margo Lanagan would write a realistic story, as I think that is where her talents lie.

  4. Emily says:

    I think the ending is sad for Liga, not because she doesn’t end up with a husband, but because she has been deprived of so much normal development during the abusive period and “heaven” years that she’ll never truly be un-alienated…she’ll never know another person of her same age who is at her same stage of development. She identifies more as a person of her daughter’s age and experience level, yet the outside world sees her as a middle-aged widow – that’s what seemed so poignant to me about her misunderstanding with Davit.

    Do you really feel like there was a lesbian undertone here? I felt like Liga’s heaven was totally asexual – understandable, given her childhood…

  5. Nymeth says:

    I love this post, Jill. Even though we don’t completely agree, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that you didn’t just refuse to take the book seriously -it being YA and fantasy seems to cause it to be promptly dismissed sometimes.

    On fairy tales being patriarchal: I won’t argue that that’s often the case, but much less so than what is commonly believed, I think. It’s weird, because I feel that my feminism is actually informed by my love of fairy tales, and so I have trouble separating the two in my mind. I feel that there’s this OTHER tradition that runs parallel to fairy tales as people normally conceive of them and which doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Here’s an interesting post on the subject if you’re curious. And now I’ll promise I didn’t vow to spend the rest of my life arguing about Tender Morsels and/or fairy tales and quietly go away 😛

    PS: And Here’s an article by Germaine Greer you might also appreciate. Okay really going now 😛

  6. Frances says:

    Really thoughtful treatment of the book here! Ultimately, it does not work for me. Not just because it is far longer than it needed to be or I hated the dialect or I wanted to drop-kick a dwarf. Just felt that it presupposes that a return to reality is somehow required despite the fantastical elements of the book. Need to find a better way to articulate this as I am still thinking it through. Liga’s options seem too limited perhaps?

  7. Richard says:

    Jill, I think you already know that I found this book so bad/ludicrous (for all of Frances’ reasons + many of my own) as to be funny at the end! However, I have to thank you for your review and your link to one of Tender Morsels‘ source fairy tales (I understand there was another source story as well). I look forward to reading that at some point. Am curious, too, if you or a Lanagan fan like Nymeth know anything about whether this novel was intended to be YA material or not? The Australian version just calls it “fiction” on the back of the book, but you have to go to the non-adult parts of the bookstores to buy it in the States. Weird marketing differences!

    • Lanagan says this in the interview I quoted from at the end of the review:

      Right from the opening lines, this is a very “adult” YA novel. Do you think about audience when you write a book like this?

      I try to think less about audience than I used to. With this one, though, I was conscious, mostly as I wrote the first couple of chapters where all the awful sexual stuff happens (oh, and the good sex of the prologue), that it was likely to be marketed somewhere as YA, so I was careful (a) to warn people straight up with the first sentence (‘There are plenty would call her a slut for it.’) and (b) to glide without description over the very worst parts of the assaults on Liga. You never see the details of her being raped by her father, and there is a big jump-cut past her rape by the town boys. This way, readers who want to preserve something of their innocence can glide right with me; they know that something awful happened, but they don’t have to watch either event as Muddy Annie says, ‘from first fumble to last thrust and drizzle’. Less innocent readers will have to endure the images their imaginations throw up at them, and may not even realise that I only suggested them, didn’t actually draw them on the page.

  8. EL Fay says:

    Regarding the controversy – it’s easy to criticize Lanagan but I think the issue is with the publisher. She didn’t set out to write a YA novel but that’s how it was presented and marketed. But I’m not sure it pales in comparison to TV and movies. Sure, there’s plenty of language, violence, and (consensual) sex out there, but bestiality, incestuous rape, gang rape, and forcible sodomy? Not so much. YA lit is still children’s lit and I believe there is a limit to what can be portrayed.

  9. Richard says:

    Too bad K Lav wasn’t ever marketed as young adult–I probably couldn’t have been talked into reading it that way!

  10. Staci says:

    Your post was excellent and I will certainly reference it when I open this book. I’m going to have to go back to Ana’s review too. I look forward to reading this one!

  11. tuulenhaiven says:

    Thanks for the link to the original fary tale. I want to re-read that.

  12. Jenners says:

    Wonderful review. This sounds like a very thought-provoking book. Just the way the two girls came to be born kind of boggles the mind a bit. I don’t know if I ever read the original fairy tale so I should probably start with that.

  13. Cipriano says:

    What a fascinating, scintillating review. You’ve piqued my interest. Later today when I am at the Bookstore I will locate this book and have a look. I like this “genre” of fantastical fiction. The names of the bears here remind me of Pullman’s His Dark Materials……. Iorek Byrnison and all.
    Cheers!

  14. kiss a cloud says:

    Jill, as I didn’t finish the book, I’m very glad to have read about the plot here and at least be able to make sense of much of what’s being discussed. I love Snow White and Rose Red, love fairy tales, but I didn’t love Lanagan’s writing at all. I can see how they might sound lovely, as with that “last blue evening” quote you posted, but I just found it all so forced. Probably too biased with the dialect which really annoyed me. But I appreciate the quote by Lanagan. Makes me understand why she wrote it that way (the beginning sentence, for example). I just wonder what she was thinking writing that dialect??? She could’ve resorted to typical fairy-tale style storytelling and I probably would’ve breezed through her book. Oh well.. not everyone will like the same things.

    On another note, I read somewhere (forgot whose blog) that you won’t be joining the nonstructured reading after this???? Why???? Really wish you still could. Loving your company so much.

  15. Cipriano says:

    Wow!
    I am AT the Bookstore right now and was looking at the book. In my next Book-Buying-Binge I am going to get a couple copies of Tender Morsels….. one for me, one for my online Reading Partner.
    As “kiss a cloud” mentions — that is quite the opening sentence, huh?
    It looks like a book we will very much enjoy.

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