The Dark Fantasy World of Margo Lanagan’s “Tender Morsels”

Last week I had the pleasure of attending my colleague Jared’s new science fiction and fantasy book group, Other Realms. While it was at the library it was still particularly enjoyable to be there as a participant rather than as a facilitator.

The group met to discuss Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, a teen fantasy that won the World Fantasy Award for Fiction (in a tie with Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year) and a Printz Honor Award in 2009.

I am not giving much away in revealing the set-up of Tender Morsels. Liga is 14 at the beginning of the book and after her mother died her father has started raping and impregnating her and even enforcing herbal abortions. But Liga is determined to keep her third pregnancy and her father dies mysteriously on his way back from the witch who has provided the termination powders. Shortly after the birth of her first daughter, Branza, Liga is gang-raped by five village boys.  Liga then becomes the mother of a second daughter, Urdda. Somehow Liga is able to retreat with her daughters from the real world into a magical world where they are all (mostly) safe. Lanagan relays Liga’s plight with lyrical, visceral prose that shares the shape of Liga’s traumas while not showing the readers the acts.

Tender Morsels is a dark fantasy indeed so one of the first questions that the group tackled was is this really a teen novel? Everyone agreed it was not and that marketing it as a teen novel lost the book some of its audience. Then the group explored the themes of the novel, the fairytales that serve as its scaffolding and inspiration. They also asked why a novel that has been called feminist by many (and one reader took vehement offense to this) made the female narration third person while the male narrators were told in first person?

One question kept coming back around through the group–do authors use rape as a metaphor for the worst that can happen to a person and why? Was Liga a victim and was that drawing of her exploitative or not? Or was the sorrow of a loss of true love and connection, in the end, the greatest harm done? We talked about the ways this theme has carried out in other contemporary novels like Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mary Doria Russell’s The  Sparrow. Is there a right way to write about rape?

The group also talked about some of the humor in the novel and the ways in which the Bears in the story reveal some levity as well as danger. The ending of the novel also drew some different reactions.

Tender Morsels is a provocative novel to be sure and brought out strong opinions and feelings in the group. While not for the faint of heart, if your group is open to fantasy that explores some dark corners of the human experience and psyche, try Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library.

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