Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is the story of Liga, a victim of paternal incest, repeated forced miscarriages and a gang rape by local boys who prey upon her after the death of her father. She has one daughter by her father and is expecting another from the rape when she decides to take her own life, but is spared the moment by an act of magic that transports her to an alternate world of safety that suspends the realities of her painful past. As her daughters mature, a rift to the real world of Liga's past opens to one of her daughters and invites a return to reality and the dimensions of feeling absent in Liga's alternate existence.
Magic and fantasy are appealing themes to me. The writing here is often beautiful, ethereal, whimsical in its descriptions (despite some dialect that misfires in an annoying fashion). There is so much here that I anticipated liking that I was a little surprised to find it so unsatisfying. And after a day of reading other reviews and jumping into a conversation or two, I think that I have hit upon what bothers me most about the book. Lanagan could not decide whether to write a children's book or an adult's book. It is neither appropriate for many children and young adults or as dark and probing as required by many adults. The feminist themes strike me as simplistic. The second half of the book dragged on in largely uninteresting exposition. And then when I put my children's librarian hat on ...
In case you have missed it reading here, I tend to hold liberal views on many things including children's ability to enjoy uncensored reading choices. But some adult guidance is always required as children are not developmentally equipped to always choose well for themselves. They have to rely upon caring adults to protect their childhoods, their individual sensibilities, their individual maturation timelines. And I have to say that the marketing of this book as a YA title strikes me as very questionable. If we roll out some reasons in chronological order - a witch that will admittedly sleep with anyone, a father who repeatedly rapes his daughter, a gang rape, sodomy and bestiality - it is difficult to avoid the eyebrow raise. Really?
The reality is that YA is not read by just older teenagers for whom this book might be difficult in parts but acceptable for most. And I am not talking about the legions of adult YA fans. YA has found a huge following in the tween market, and this book with the attractive bear and girl on the cover, the promise of fairy tale, and the industry accolades attached to its front and referenced on its back has appeal to younger girls.
Smart kids want smart books that they are sometimes not emotionally ready to process. I have seen this on many occasions with students. Nightmares. Nervousness. Temporarily turned off reading by a bad experience. We also all know kids that nothing seems to have an ill effect upon them. At 13, I was very fond of scaring myself senseless with a Stephen King book or two. But when a book is marketed as a YA title to both the appropriate audience plus a smart tween set, we have to look at whether it is truly appropriate for those most likely to pick it up. In my opinion, this one is not.
Many people adore this book, and I can understand some of those reasons. It had very limited appeal to me though. But I know that some of you out there will love it so I am giving my gently read hardcover copy away. The first person to ask for it in the comments will receive it. Just email me your shipping address after commenting.
This book is the May selection for my non-structured reading group. Other posters today include Emily, Richard, Jill, EL Fay. If you care to join us next month, we will discuss Moo Pak by Gabriel Josipovici on June 25.