Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan has made a name for herself by writing wonderfully evocative and occasionally controversial short fiction. Tender Morsels (US, UK, Canada) is her first full-length novel, and like much of her previous work is marketed toward a YA audience. Lanagan skillfully tells a very powerful story that is accessible to teens, who in spite of the mature content and themes, know the reality presented better than most of us adults give them credit for.

Tender Morsels starts in an interesting way – it’s all about the sex. Now, this is a bit misleading, we begin with the scene of two adolescent outcastes in post-coital chit-chat. Then we move on to the central character, young Liga Longfield, and witness a premature stillbirth, the unrealized result of abortive herbs. Soon, we see the greater story of how Liga lives alone and in isolation with her father, a hard man who regularly sexually abuses her. Liga is young, sheltered, ignorant and innocent to the true horrors of her situation. We see her gain some understanding, we see something of a resolution, the birth of a child, and then a gang rape that breaks Liga’s remaining spirit. None of these is truly explicit in its portrayal, and the view from Liga’s point of view deadens the horror, but this isn’t the expected start to a book billed as YA.

The set-up is the key and what follows is the discussion. In the moment of her greatest despair, Liga magically comes to her own personal heaven where she raises her two daughters in a sheltered safety. As the walls of her heaven gradually thin we see things more and more often from the point of view of her two daughters – one who unknowingly craves the read world and another contented with comforts she knows. Barriers break down and the entire family must confront reality in their own ways.

The underlying reality of humanity lies at the heart of this story. It’s a world of overwhelming cruelty interspersed with acts of incredible kindness and everything in between. Liga escapes a horrific reality, yet unwittingly restricts the lives of her daughters. This timeless story of the evil and generosity of humanity is the hard and true story of making happiness in a place of darkness while learning the true definition of what it means to live.

As wonderfully told the story is, I have to admit that Tender Morsels is a story that really didn’t appeal to me. It’s not a book that I enjoyed reading, though to approach this book as a story to ‘enjoy’, may not be the best approach. And the honest kicker is that I’m not exactly sure why it didn’t appeal to me. Is it because I was never a too much of an outsider, is it because I’ve never suffered any real abuse, or is it simply because as a male I had a more difficult time relating to the mostly female cast. Whatever the reason, I can say that it’s not he fault of the book or its writing, but of my relation to it (hey, sometime it happens this way). 7/10

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