I hardly know what to say about this book. I’m not even going to try to describe the plot. A plot description really doesn’t tell you anything. Each moment of this book illuminated nothing but the moment before it, nothing forward, so that the book was completely unpredictable the entire way through. Nothing I’d read – no review, no book description – prepared me for what I was going to meet at any step of the way. And because I can’t possibly convey to you how beautiful this book is, I’m simply going to take you through my experience of reading it.
I bought Tender Morsels a couple weeks ago. I knew I might meet Margo Lanagan at ALA, and Ana had been talking up this book so much that I finally caved and got it. On the way home, Jason read me the first paragraph, and immediately I was a little nervous about what was coming:
There are plenty would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. Now I could get this embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.
This was not at all what I expected. I remembered Ana talking about the beautiful prose, the magical quality, the gentleness of the book. After hearing that first paragraph, I admit I was a little embarrassed. I wondered whether I ought to have checked the book out of the library, instead of buying it. But, determined, I plunged forward.
The book has multiple narrators, some first person, some third person, and while that seems to bother some readers, it didn’t bother me. I was certainly glad when the 4-page prologue, a bawdy after-sex scene mixed with mysticism told from the midget Dought’s POV, was over. Unfortunately, it took awhile for the book to move upwards from that – not because I was prejudiced against it, but because of what followed: a semi-descriptive account of a girl abused by her father and forced to abort several fetuses in awful ways. It was uncomfortable. Very, very uncomfortable.
I could only read in small chunks, 30 pages here, 20 pages there, split up over multiple days. Normally I read very fast, but for reasons I’ll illuminate a bit later, this was a slow book for me. That was actually a good thing, because it gave me time to think as I went on. I thought about my discomfort, and understood why it was there. Think, for a moment, about readers back in Thomas Hardy’s writing days. He wrote books from the 1870s to the 1890s, in Britain. Particularly in the 90s, his books became very racy. Tess of the d’Urbervilles implied a rape scene. It made people uncomfortable. A couple years later, he published Jude the Obscure, which I have not read, which I know nothing about except that it made people so uncomfortable that they railed against Hardy as a writer, and he decided never to write another book again (he didn’t in his remaining 33 years). His books, by today’s standards, are extremely tame. The idea of implying a rape in only the vaguest 1800s terms is not very uncomfortable for today’s reader. But people were going to the extreme in Hardy’s case. Jude the Obscure was publicly burned, for instance. I thought about this, I thought about classic authors that burned new pathways through peoples’ discomfort all through history. It made me realize my discomfort was not a bad thing. My discomfort was no different than the 1890s people reading Jude and Tess, both of which I’m glad to have today. Discomfort is sometimes necessary.
Lanagan doesn’t glorify the events at the beginning of this book. The sex, the rape, the abortions. They aren’t gratuitous. They are uncomfortable, oh yes, but that discomfort is necessary to experience everything else that comes after in the book. Once I realized that, I was okay.
I said above it was a slow book, and for me it was. It took me nearly two weeks to read (if I don’t count the 5 days I was in Chicago). If I tried to read the book like any other book, I fumbled and didn’t retain a word. The prose in this book is so thick, so careful, so beautifully written that it DEMANDS attention. For me, at least, it was impossible to read quickly, and I adored it for that quality. I can’t remember the last time a book forced me to slow down. Normally it takes me a day or two to read a novel, unless it’s really boring or…well, like Nabokov, who forces your mind to do backflips while reading (and that doesn’t count). This was neither boring nor acrobatic; it was just slow. Which was perfect.
As the book went on, I felt better and better about it. The scenes with the first bear are some of my favorite in the book. (Yes, I know that makes little sense to those unfamiliar with the plot, but take my word for it, it was very sweet.) I loved the themes that pulled through this book. I loved the idea of the dangers of living in our own personal heaven rather than facing reality. I loved the idea that barriers can be overcome. I loved that love can triumph over fear, that the world is not safe or peaceful, but can still be beautiful. Lastly, I loved that no one was all good. There were some characters who were pretty close to being all bad, but even the people you want to root for with all your heart, the people who think they are doing the best thing for everyone, can turn out to be mistaken, and can accidentally hurt those around them. No one’s perfect. Everyone will break someone’s heart at some point, even if only by accident. It was messy, like life is messy.
I have to admit, near the end of the book, there came a scene that nearly destroyed the book for me. It involves cloth-men, and if you read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’ve tried to think about that scene as little as possible, because like everything else in the book, it is delicately but forcefully depicted. While Lanagan never goes into detailed specifics of the cloth-men’s crimes, she splashes just enough subtle strokes of description to let your mind fill in the rest, and it was something my mind just didn’t want to see. I have a particular aversion to that sort of crime, and it turned my stomach.
I don’t want that scene to stick with me. I want it to fall away, all 5 pages of it, so that I can keep loving the other 431 pages. If it manages to ebb away in my mind, so that the rest of the book swallows it, this may become one of my favorite books of all time. If it doesn’t, my love will inevitably be tainted. I can’t tell what will happen over the next couple months. I do think that if I didn’t have a particular aversion here, this would not affect me so badly. After all, the crimes at the beginning of the book, which aren’t much different, don’t affect me the same way, and I understand that the latter crimes are meant to create a full-circle fairy-tale-like feel. I understand their purpose in the book, but we all have our weak spots, and this just happens to be one of mine, unfortunately.
That’s my only qualm, though. For the most part, this book is beautiful. Lanagan is a master of writing. Her style is not like Steinbeck, but in reading Tender Morsels, I remembered something my cousin Jen said about The Grapes of Wrath last year: that every single word was carefully thought out and chosen, every word meant something, there was nothing unnecessary in the book’s prose. I feel the same way about Tender Morsels. Even the parts that were ugly and/or uncomfortable didn’t feel unnecessary.
Last thing I’ll mention, and then I’ll end this super-long review. I can’t consider this a Young Adult book. It’s published that way in the US, and received a Printz honor award, but in Australia (where Lanagan is from), it’s published as an adult book, and I think that’s a more appropriate venue. It’s not that I don’t think teenagers can handle subjects like sexual abuse and abortion, that would be silly! It’s just that the tone of the book feels like it’s meant for an older audience in my opinion, though I know others may disagree.