The narrative calms down a little after that as the novel moves more towards the sort of fantasy I was expecting. The shift into fantasy left me floundering a little. Fans of the genre would probably take most of the bizarre events that followed in their stride, but I started to feel quite slow and stupid. I was relieved to come across a passage towards the end of the middle section that neatly summarised both the events I had read so far, and my own confusion: “Things came and went, and there was no sense to it. First-Bear had arrived, and then flown away to the moon … And then Bear – that second Bear … he had gone too, run away to nothing.” I was about to give up on this gibberish when it occurred to me that perhaps the point of fantasy is to create a lot of confusion and then explain it later. So I pressed on, and the book did indeed start to offer some explanations about the flying bears and angry midgets and so forth, and I realised this was a bit like detective fiction in which the reader is compelled by the desire to know what the hell is going on.

 

As things fell into place, however, it became clear that this was not really an enchanted-forest type of fantasy. It was in fact a grim rape-revenge fantasy, building gradually towards (spoiler alert) a horrific, night-long, anal gang-rape session inflicted on the perpetrators of previous attacks (although, this being fantasy, the comeuppance was delivered by a group of embroidered dollies with massive pins sticking out of them). So savage had been the earlier scenes of abuse that it was hard not to feel a rush of cathartic joy at this rectally-administered vengeance, and there was an added sense of surrealism since the way the dollies came to life reminded me of the Gingerbread Man, with fixed smiles on their faces.

 

For all this, there was a genuine poignancy at the heart of the book in the form of the main character, Liga. Poignancy, that is, in the sense of despair, since this woman is condemned to suffering from start to finish.

 

It is hard to picture what the author’s message is. Liga’s attempt to retreat from all the sexual abuse into an imaginary safe-haven (echoing the final capitulation into madness of the tortured hero in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) is treated as a terrible mistake. We are told that the right choice means facing up to her tormentors, and accepting the horrors of the patriarchal rape-fest that is real life, and that the final solution is to assume the powers of a man and go on your own raping spree. At times, it feels uncomfortably like the moral of the story is that women must accept the inevitability of rape as the price of hunting out the few good men who can offer affection. By retreating into her sex-free fantasy land, Liga is condemned to shrivel into old age having never found love. Coming from a female author, this seems like a particularly controversial message.

 

In the end, Tender Morsels left me no more enamoured of medieval village life than before, and I feel that I’ve experienced enough sexual violence to last me a long while. But I was impressed that the concept of fantasy extends beyond mystical runes and talking badgers into some of the dark and harrowing forms of fantasy that consume the most wretched victims of the real world.

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Eric the Unbeliever reads Tender Morsels by Margot Lanagan

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In what may turn out to be a rather naive and fool-hardy venture, we at Holdfast have decided to attempt to spread the love of Speculative fiction by trying to convert some self-proclaimed 'Unbelievers.' So, we handed over a book we hold dear to our hearts 'Tender Morsels' by Margot Lanagan, to Eric Randolph, a SERIOUS journalist who covers SERIOUS world affairs, and normally likes ‘high brow’ stuff... Hmm, even though we chose a rather serious Speculative Fiction book that explores real-life themes, in hindsight we think we may have been setting ourselves up for a bit of a fall. We’ll have to admit to ourselves that our first round of enlightenment has been a resounding, gleaming, golden ...FAIL.

Round One:

Unbelievers: 1, Holdfast editors: 0

The fantasy genre has obsessions that it’s hard for an outsider like me to understand. Personally, I find it particularly strange that fantasy fans are so caught up with the medieval period, which seems populated mostly by sadists, village idiots and mud. Tender Morsels did little to surprise me on this front, forcing me to spend several hours in the company of people who say “girl-child” when they mean “daughter”, and have names like Teazel Wurledge. This is my personal metropolitan snobbism at work, of course – a constant fear that I might one day have to hold an extended conversation with a yokel.

 

But I was more surprised with how obsessed Tender Morsels is with rape. Is this common to a lot of fantasy? If so, I’m not sure I could handle much of it. The book opens with a pretty repulsive account of a midget having sex in a field, which turns out to be the most pleasant sex in the book. It’s followed by an extended discussion of a father’s violent sexual abuse of his daughter. A  couple of aborted fetuses later, and the reader is treated to the same girl being dragged out of a chimney and brutally gang-raped by five adolescents.

We chose Tender Morsels for our first attempt at conversion because we believe it to be a beautifully written and unique example of fantasy that actually steps away from a lot of the clichés of the genre.

 

It is an original and imaginative retelling of  ‘Snow White and Rose Red.’ Whilst there are elements true to the traditional tale such as the bear and the wicked treasure-stealing dwarf, it looks more closely at Snow White’s (Branza’s) and Rose Red’s (Urda’s) mother.

 

The tale opens with their mother Liga, the victim of long-term child abuse at the hands of her father. This is a difficult subject area, especially as the amount of rape in Fantasy has recently been highlighted as a particularly disappointing trope when it comes to women within these narratives.

However, Tender Morsels handles this theme in a style that is in no way gratuitous. We do not experience the rape with Liga. There is no dirty excitement to it. It is simply horrific, tragic, and unacceptable. The first part of Tender Morsels is about abuse, helplessness, and retreat.

 

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For yes, Liga takes herself and her two daughters away from this situation, to a place where none of them can be hurt. By hiding, Liga has some time to heal. And it also means that Liga can provide a place for her children that she never had, a place of safety. Here they are the rulers of their own surroundings. Her daughters can take this inner security with them when they go into the ‘real’ world. They internalise this heaven their mother has created for them, and are strong because of it.

 

So strong that they eventually take revenge on their mother’s attackers.

 

Tender Morsels looks at the influence of environment. Liga is subjugated, isolated, controlled physically and mentally, but not broken. She retains the capacity for love, and the will to give her daughters a better future than she has had. However as a result of her torture, she provides this protective environment by retreating from the world.

 

The result is concurrently negative and positive. Liga sacrifices her own healing and youth for the sake of her daughters, feeling secure and safe for the first time in her life. But, in spite of everything, there is   something missing. In her new environment she is still lonely and isolated. Before, she had been kept away from society by her father, and now, she chooses to retreat from humanity of her own accord. For she has only witnessed the worst, most hideous side of mankind. Since the death of her mother, she has not experienced the warmth of positive human contact and relationships, nor the happiness that can be secured through the support of a good and loving friend.

 

You know what? I was disappointed that Liga didn’t get her man to fall into the sunset with. However, this story has a fairytale ending of another kind. We leave Liga safely amongst friends and family, living within a community that no longer terrifies her. After all that she has been through, I think that is a wonderful place for her to be.

Eric the Unbeliever

Holdfast Editors

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Snow White and Rose Red give the Bear Prince a good scrub in the original fairy tale

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