Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan
This is one of the most startling things I have ever read. In both premise and execution it went places I never knew I wanted a book to go. I absolutely loved it and think it may be one of my favorite books ever. I have often discussed with people that one of the reasons I left contemporary literature behind (and by that, I mean keeping up with and reading much of what was being newly published and talked about) is because so many “important” books are men’s stories. They would be beautiful and illuminating, would have nothing to do with me or my life or anything I’d ever felt, but more importantly ignored or dismissed the existence of women altogether. And that can still be a valid reading experience, but not all the time. I’m tired of so much of the dominant artistic culture being about men, especially when universalities are illustrated using only male experience. So my point, after that long meander, is that Tender Morsels is for me the great women’s book I’ve been longing for. Without shafting men.
And it’s a crazy book. Crazy. This is the first page, a love scene of sorts between a “witch” and a little person:
There were plenty would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. Now I could get this embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.
She were a revalation, Hotty Annie. I had not known a girl could feel this too. Lucky girls; they can feel it and feel it and nothing need showon the outside; they have to act all hot like Annie did, talk smut and offer herself to the lads, before anyone can tell…
“By the Leddy,” she said, “you have the kitment of a full man, you have, however short a stump you are the rest of you.”
And then soon after the rape and incest starts. It’s really brutal, but never explicit and it wasn’t unbearable. And then heaven comes, and the magical bears and then sort of a rapey bear. It’s a surreal feminist fairy tale filtered through Cormac McCarthy about the struggle of women to claim their place and power in the world despite the horrors they must face. One of my favorite bits happens midway through when a powerful witch is called upon to unmuddle a mess:
She, Urdda, must see that place someday, where women dressed so beautifully yet so plain, and rode about alone. No one would dare spit upon this woman, or call out at her. She had a different kind of boldness, a strength that did not defy that of men so much as ignore it, or take its place without question beside it — Urdda wanted some of that boldness.
I usually can’t stand the way rape is used in many stories and will generally avoid books that contain it. But reading this book was cathartic and not at all triggering. And despite the fact that horrible things never stop happening, it’s still a hopeful book that demands remaining engaged in the world.
The plot is also strong, though much more complicated than most reviews paint it (but I think this is the review that made me want to read it and it does a good job with the basics of the plot and its appeal). There are also frequent changes in narrator and time and place. If it hadn’t been marketed for teenagers I don’t think I would consider teens as being possible readers of it. We’ll see how it does out in the world.
Unfortunately I can’t demand that everyone read this book, but I wish I could. But that I loved every second of reading such a dark and challenging book, should be some indication of how wonderful it is.