“Tender Morsels” presents fairy-tale narrative of abuse and healing

Ellie Gold

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Credit: Olivia Johnson

“Tender Morsels”
Margo Lanagan
Random House 2008
433 pages

Margo Lanagan’s novel is a dark and violent coming-of-age fairy tale, but from the first sentence “Tender Morsels” is not your ordinary fairy story. The novel is a retelling of “Snow White and Rose Red,” and a blatant one at that. Lanagan, however, has injected the original folktale, via her extraordinarily beautiful language, with a brutal narrative of abuse both emotional and sexual.

“There are plenty who would call her a slut for it,” the prologue begins, “Me, I was just glad she had shown me.” The prologue, narrated by the dwarf Collaby Dought, is more innocuous than the rest of the novel’s first half, but even this section begins by telegraphing Lanagan’s feminist reworking of the fairy tale and the novel’s concerns with sexuality and gender dynamics.

The first chapter introduces Liga Longfield, a 14-year-old girl sexually abused by her father, whose abuse continues until his accidental death. This respite is broken by Liga’s brutal gang rape at the hands of a group of town boys. She attempts suicide but is instead given access to her personal heaven, a place where no one shames her or offers her violence. Within this therapeutic paradise, Liga is able to raise her two daughters without worry, separated from the source of her trauma and aided by the friendship of bears and wolves. (This is a fairy tale, after all, although the bears don’t talk as they do in the original.) The encroachments of bears and men slowly force an end to their gentle existence, however, and Liga’s daughters must rejoin the world that caused their mother such pain.

Lanagan’s novel is classified as Young Adult literature in the United States, but in the author’s native Australia it was released as a novel for adults (i.e. “Fiction”). The language of “Tender Morsels” is sumptuous and clever, filled with luscious phrases and an invented dialect that sounds perfectly authentic. She does not rely on graphic descriptions of Liga’s abuse to horrify: there is, amazingly, no room for either voyeurism or pity in this narrative, only pure emotional response. While Liga’s abuse is never described, the effects of said abuse–her miscarriages and the aftermath of her rapes–are portrayed at length. In this way, the novel places the focus on Liga’s survival rather than her abuse, demonstrating the effects of brutality while refusing to submit to the desire for titillation all too prevalent in contemporary pop culture.

Neither does the novel lose its poetry when it shifts into unadulterated fairy tale. Lanagan’s writing is reminiscent of Angela Carter’s restructured fairy tales, returning to their often violently misogynistic roots to illustrate her themes of gender and sexuality. “Tender Morsels” is a deeply affecting book, and to designate it as YA literature, as American publishing often does with female coming-of-age narratives, could be seen as unfair to the author’s considerable skill. However, narratives of abuse that are graced with such prose are few and far between, and perhaps can bring some dignity to a genre overladen with vampiric high schoolers.

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