Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review of "Tender Morsels" - Joint Winner of 2009 World Fantasy Award

US Hardcover of Tender Morsels. Illustration by Jody Hewgill

First, the news: "Tender Morsels", the novel length retelling of the Grimm's fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red by Australian author Margo Lanagan, was just announced as the joint winner of the World Fantasy Award this past weekend (the other winner was "The Shadow Year" by Jeffrey Ford). You can read her reaction on her blog HERE and see the full list of nominees and winners HERE.

Now the review:

Many are not surprised at seeing "Tender Morsels" win and I know why. Lanagan's novel has an unusual balance of being beautifully written without drawing attention to the fact.

Here's a taste of her prose (my aim here is to give you some context for all the discussion that comes next):
The girls were two flames at which she warmed herself to humanness, having long been something else—stone, perhaps; dried-out wood. Their perfect trust that the happy times would continue—she watched it and she sipped it as some small birds sip nectar, and she began, if not to perfectly trust it herself, at least to hope more strongly, at least to look beyond the beauties of the immediate season to the plans and practicalities demanded by the next—or the next several years, maybe? Maybe.
Trade Paperback Cover for Tender Morsels (coming Feb 9th, 2010). Illustrator unknown.

In case you know nothing about the book there are three main points about it:

1) It's a retelling of the Grimm's fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red
2) The use of language is gorgeous
3) It's dark content has made it a very controversial addition to the YA genre

I'll begin by saying this: The writing is beautiful, unexpected, quietly poignant and it draws you in. The way Ms. Lanagan uses language is so unique - not at all the way people normally put words together - yet it doesn't feel in the slightest bit forced. I unconsciously slowed my reading down so I wouldn't miss anything.

Ms. Lanagan's handling of the story is to be admired. "Tender Morsels" has rewritten my mental image of the fairy tale in many ways and the passages which deal directly with events of the Grimm's story now seem to me as if they couldn't be any other way. I won't go into a synopsis as I presume you know the fairy tale but to give you clues I'll pose a couple of questions: Did you ever think to ask why a mother of two young daughters lived isolated and alone in the middle of a wood? Did you ever wonder how two girls born to the same woman could be so different in almost all aspects including looks and temperament?
UK Hardcover. Illustrator unknown.

Though I'd heard amazing things about Ms. Lanagan's work for some time and was keen to read a novel-length retelling of a rarely tackled tale, I was put off for the longest time by two things. Firstly, all I really heard about "Tender Morsels", usually coupled with a brief and grudging respect for the writing, was the controversy; how dark and possibly inappropriate the subject matter/context of the story was for young adults to read. I never found myself in a mood to deal with reading about issues of rape, incest and abortion among other dark things so it kept sliding down my to-be-read pile.

Secondly was my awareness of the different covers. The first two I saw were so different from each other it seemed people didn't know what to make of the story. The first one I saw was this one below.
UK/Australian Hardcover of Tender Morsels Illustration by Jerry Caniglia

It felt so dark to me, it reinforced the idea the book wouldn't be something I'd enjoy. I should explain here that I usually read dark stories quite happily. Edgy urban fantasy, dark fantasy, thrillers and suspense that border on (but aren't actually) horror, vampires and monsters of all kinds - bring them on. But when it came to this fairy tale, perhaps because none of the above-mentioned issues are even hinted at in the Grimm's text (unlike Donkeyskin or The Golden Hands/Armless Maiden in which the issues of violence, abuse and incest are clearly part of the story) I think I worried that the 'darkness' was gratuitous. Quite frankly I didn't want to read a story in which some writer indulged in sordid descriptions of pain, abuse and confusion just to garner attention.

The range of different awards being won, along with the cover at the head of the post (which is the second cover I saw and the one sitting in bookstores in the US), changed my perception somewhat. I do think the illustration at the top of the post by Jody Hewgill does a great job at capturing the folktale aspects of the story and the layered, fairy tale nature of the telling. It definitely influenced me adding it to my must-read pile.

I can't remember what finally prompted me to pick up the book, other than a challenge to myself that I should see what the fuss was about, knowing I could put it down should I ever decide enough was enough, but I'm so glad I did. It now among my favorite fairy tale retellings and has been given a place on my 'books I love' shelf.
Australian Paperback Cover of Tender Morsels. Illustration by RuudVanEmpel

Yes, the book does deal with all those issues people are talking about. Yes, you have to wonder whether YA is the right category for this book (clearly YA is a complex genre way beyond preppy high school stories and romantic vampire love interests - "Lord of the Flies" anyone?) but this is what struck me: The scenes which deal with these controversial issues are so matter-of-factly dealt with and somehow gently blunt that you understand exactly how Liga (the main character) feels about every situation. Some is so sadly normal that in some ways it's barely focused on. Other things aren't completely understood by the character and are light on the specifics so it's only from a more aware perspective that we understand what's happening. This doesn't mean it's emotionally distant though - the opposite is true. When Liga finally comes to terms with her past it's a very 'true' scene with great emotional impact.

This excellent article HERE explains Ms. Lanagan's perspective on dark issues in children's literature and why she wrote what she did. And this interview HERE explains more about her process of writing the book and dealing with various characters and subjects.

"Tender Morsels" is hard to describe other than to say my lasting impression of the book is magical, sweet and complicated and anyone that can give me that after taking me through the horrors Liga had to endure is a masterful story teller (expect some discomfort - the first sentence and opening scene specifically clues you in to the fact this isn't a sugar and spice book). For all the darkness in Liga's story and particularly the early scenes, it is the light and magic that remains. It is very true in this case that the light is all the more bright and sweet for the darkness it is pitted against. While you can't forget what Liga went through to bring her two daughters into the world you still have the sense of magic and of fairy tale in it's truest sense.

I haven't even touched on the bear aspects in this book. Bear Day, on which the author writes an additional note in the back of the book, is based on the journée de l'ours (pictures at this link by the way) held every February in a place called Prats de Mollo la Preste (in the Pyrenees) and holds that same combination of raw earthiness and magical wonder the entire book holds. The character of Ramstrong, who is transformed into a bear and retains his gentle dignity, is one of those I'll remember always. He's a pleasant (and healing) contrast to most of the male characters that come before him. Later scenes in which two 'bear-affected' youths bond over tragic events are surprising and touching. Somehow it never seemed important to me that the bear of the fairy tale was a bear as opposed to some other large wild creature. After this novel it now feels that 'bear-ness' is integral to the story.
Soon-to-be-released Australian Cover of Tender Morsels.
Illustration by Shaun Tan, winner of 2009 World Fantasy Best Artist Award.

The new Australian cover (shown above) does a great job of capturing the general feel of the book for me - comforting but with serious teeth and claws. It's not for everyone but then I've never met a book that is. I would suggest reading some excerpts for yourself - lovely ones like the excerpts I posted above and gritty ones (you can find one of the darker passages HERE) - before making up your mind whether or not to pick up a copy.

As much as I adored the novel, I do have some issues with it. I could have done without the details of the cloth men's actions in particular and I have issues with things like the POV juggling and the odd lack of follow-up caused by not returning to various character's POV at key points. There's also the odd, abrupt ending which seemed so at odds with the rest of the book I reread the last chapter to see if I missed something yet overall it's one of those books that stays with you - in a good way. It doesn't have answers, a call to arms or great insights into rehabilitating oppressed and abused women but that's OK because instead it does the same thing fairy tales do: it tells you there's a way to survive, that there are alternatives to being eaten, no matter how tender a morsel you are. It tells you the truth.

Other reviews of "Tender Morsels" (favorable and not so favorable) you may find interesting, are linked below:
Things Mean A Lot
My Fluttering Heart
Locus Online
Fyrefly's Book Blog
The Zen Leaf

Note: There is a list of editions for this book HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow! You definately just sparked my interest. Rose Red and Snow White is one of my favorite fairy tales and after reading Princess of the Midnight Ball, I have been looking into reading more retold fairy tales (which seem to be quite popular lately). I think I will go pick it up today after work. Thank you so much for the reccomendation.