Monday, September 1, 2008

Review of Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

Grades 9 and up
After being evilly abused for most of her short life, 15-year-old Liga attempts to end her own life and the life of her infant. Some benevolent power sends her instead to a parallel version of her cottage and village, where there are no bad people or even any unpredictability or unpleasantness. It’s a place where she can raise her two daughters (for she was pregnant again when brought here) in tranquility, where nothing and no one will ever make demands on her. It is, in fact, her own heaven.

When Liga’s daughters Branza and Urdda are still young, a small-time ignorant witch named Annie manages to accidentally cause a rift between the real world and Liga’s heaven, causing the occasional visitor, benign or malign, to cross over for a time from Liga’s old village into her heaven. Branza’s encounters with these visitors are sometimes confusing or unpleasant, but Urdda is enflamed with curiosity and must find a way to the real world. Find it she does, and manages to find good folks who understand who she is and can help her. Meanwhile, time spins much faster in Liga’s heaven, with one of Urdda’s years equaling ten of Branza and Liga’s years.

Urdda misses her family and wants to visit them; not only is she unable to do so, but an expert witch must be called in to bring out Branza and Liga from Liga’s fatally damaged heaven and make it vanish for good. Branza and Liga, one innocent by chance and one by choice, must figure out how to make their way in this dangerous, terrifying real world, where men and boys are violent and badness lurks around every corner.

This is the truly compelling part of the tale. Liga’s experience of the world was so awful that it is no wonder she created such a safe and static place for herself and her daughters, filled with bland folks who didn’t actually exist. But Branza and Urdda, being human, could not grow up healthy and whole in a place where the only complex beings were their mother and the occasional magicked visitor. They need to learn how to survive in this all-too-real world and to find their own heart’s desire if they can. Even Liga is human and belongs to this brutal world, and her slow healing is wondrous and painful to experience.

From its truly horrifying and brutal beginning to its satisfying but bittersweet end, this novel is mesmerizing. Language (characters speak in a country dialect that sounds both fantastical and utterly authentic) and tone remain consistent, whether the story is being told from Liga’s damaged but sweet perspective, from the perspective of one of the Bears who ends up in Liga’s heaven, or from those of any number of other carefully drawn characters. No one is perfect – all have flaws, some much more than others – but we can understand, if not sympathize with, each person. Often wrenching, at heart this is a truly tender story of healing, growing, and redemption.

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