Monday, January 25, 2010

Tender Morsels

I took lots of books down to Tassie with me, but of course when you are camping there isn't as much time for reading. Days are spent doing stuff or keeping at least half an eye on the children, and at night it tends to get inconveniently dark and there is only so long you can sit in the toilet block without being accused of shirking childcare responsibilities. The one book I did devour was Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels.

I presented with Margo Lanagan at the Melbourne Writer's Festival a couple of years ago. Tender Morsels was on the verge of being published, and I was in the thrall of an early draft of Only Ever Always (the 'being haunted' stage, where I had some sense of the story I was writing, but only the most ghostly impression of what the book might look like at the end). As Margo talked I realised that we were crossing some of the same thematic territory: in particular alternative worlds produced from a characters' internal experience - in Margo's case literally and in my case a bit more ambiguously, but also the theme of protecting children from mot only the world and all its pitfalls but from having to live through their entire emotional range - protecting them from anger and grief and pain (which of course means protecting them from passion and love and bliss, because those emotions only really exist with risk).

Anyway, I decided I needed to get to a draft stage I was happy with before I could read Tender Morsels, protecting myself from, frankly, ripping off Ms Lanagan - who I am passionately jealous of as a writer (in a good feminist supportive kind of way - onya Margo). I read Margo's realist novel The Best Thing before I did work experience at Allen & Unwin and then Touching Earth Lightly when I was there, so I was about 24 when I discovered her, not completely outside the age group she is writing for. Touching Earth Lightly is disturbing and beautiful and tragic, utterly unsettling but I was compelled by it. White Time was a manuscript I did a reader's report on as a work experience student and I was mesmerised by her unique storytelling 'dialects'. I always say Voice is the x-factor which can't be taught and Margo has Voice up the wazoo.

When I sent off Only Ever Always just after Christmas (not final draft, but definitely with the bones of the story down) I rewarded myself with this novel. I had been reading Margo's blog and keeping up to date with all the hooha surrounding it (more hooha here, including the rather ridiculous suggestion that females aren't equipped to deal with 'adult themes' until 22 and males until 30). And of course reading all the wonderfully positive reviews as well.

I hadn't just put it off because of fears of artistic crossover. As a mother of daughters, I knew that it would be a confronting read. I knew that there was plenty of material of the sort that I am way too squeamish as a writer to contemplate, especially with young kids - at the moment I just can't go there. As a reader I find myself self-censoring, avoiding very violent or dystopic books (for example The Road). I've read enough of Margo's novels to know that she does trade in hope, however faint the glimmer, however dark the tapestry surrounding it. However, I also knew that it would twist my guts, so I read it at first gingerly, with one eye.

Before I knew it I was being carried through the novel by Margo's lavish language, and by my investment in the characters (I disagree emphatically with the one review I read who said she didn't care about any of the characters, I cared about all of them, perhaps especially Urdda, the adventurous one whose heart stretched beyond her surroundings - as a suburban girl, I totally related to her desire to explore the world).

I found the book structurally fascinating, you could see that Margo had been writing short stories for years, which is not to say that the threads weren't woven together beautifully. But there was a kind of layering of stories, including at its heart a fleshed out and highly original reimagining of Snow White and Rose Red (one of my favourite tales from childhood, I so would have married a bear when I was a kid). Repetition and distortion made for a fascinating motif, sort of like a wheel slowly decentering until it flies wild. Everything falls apart, but it comes together again in what I would consider a happy ending, even if things don't quite fall into the slots you might expect them to. Some things I happily anticipated (Urdda's resolution, though I was taken aback by her act of vengeance) some I didn't (Branza's - I had my eye on someone else for her). I could see some sort of vengeance or penance needed to occur, and I agree with Margo who says storybook justice is different from real-world justice. I like the word storybook too, it's a nice description for a type of book that transcends traditional markets, like this one.

Something that amuses me, in a grim sort of way, is that those getting their kecks in a twist about the inappropriate content and the preciousness of extended childhood innocence actually enhance the experience of reading the novel. The whole novel is about the limitations of a protected life including within the realm of fantasy and imagination. What happens if there are no shadows under the bed? What happens if childhood extends through adolescence and into young adulthood? What if your world is so devoid of tension that you can't conceive of bad things, or bad people? And in particular, what if that extension of childhood is generated through absolute adult control over the child's whole environment, including the people they interact with? The emotional numbness that results in the novel is achingly real and in some ways more difficult to bear than the gang rape scenes.

I highly recommend Tender Morsels as a reading experience. It's not easy or safe, but is life worth living if there is no risk?

Unrelated, but a friend wondered aloud the other day how differently Margo Lanagan would write if she was a mother of daughters instead of sons. Makes me want to genetically engineer such a creature, just out of interest.


  1. i read heaps when i'm camping - rest time after lunch and with a booklight after dark!

    loved the photos pen, looked like a lovely trip :)

  2. I suspect if Margo Lanagan was a musician she would write lovely creepy albums like Colin Meloy (of the Decemberists).

  3. I did read more when we were in our first leg, away from friends and family, while the kids played. The other days we were just too busy. We have a new camping system which entails all of us going to bed together in the evening, after reading several chapters of Famous Five. It was more relaxing than desperately wrangling the kids only to snatch half an hour of childfree time. It was a lovely trip. I will blog about it in more detail.

    Anna, interesting. I have often thought the same of Patty Griffin and Anne Tyler.

  4. get. a. booklight.

    indispensable for me when camping : )

  5. I couldn't agree with you more regarding TM, Penni - one of the best books I read last year. And as far as reading while camping goes, we have one of these: and it's just brilliant, for camping and all sorts of other uses.

  6. Phew. Great post. I've loved reading the reviews/comments about this book and have followed them in a round about way considering I have yet to read it. It is now on my bedside table and I am about to throw myself into it right now.

    I have steeled myself (I also have two daughters that have clouded the way I read and watch and listen and write) and must pick it up as I warmed up a little with the brilliant Black Juice.