Monday, August 10, 2009

Of "Tender Morsels".

This is not a real review, just a personal view of the book.

I read Margo Lanagan's novel Tender Morsels shortly after it first came out last year. I was simply blown away by it. It is going to be one of those powerful novels that I come back to over and over. The language is so exquisitely wrought, whether it is one of the horrific scenes (of which there are a number so be prepared but don't let them put you off. This is not gratuitous violence) or the sweet description of two unlikely lovers, that it coils inside you so you live the experiences with the characters. This can be confronting but Tender Morsels is in the tradition of stories like those collected by the Brothers Grimm before they were sanitised into froth and the darkness removed and so is often dark and challenging reading.

What confuses me is the outcry from some sources about the gritty reality of the writing. I've read reviews where it's described in ways that would make you think it is a blow by blow description of the terrible events that befall some of the characters. Where this comes from I do not understand. This is not a book with explicit descriptions of rape, incest or other sexual activity. We are left in no doubt as to what has happened but we do not actually have the mechanics given. The language used is so rich and skilfully worked that the reader is drawn into the experience and our imagination fills in the details. So effective is this that there were times when I had to stop reading for a while because it was too much to bear (no pun intended).

Much of the controversy has been because it is marketed as YA. Do I think this is a book for pre-teens? No. It deals with issues that most would not be able to identify with or understand. On the other hand, teens of both sexes have to learn about a world that is often not safe and where violence of all kinds does happen. More to the point they know it. Unless they are completely insulated from society - no news broadcasts, no television, no peers to talk to, no contact outside their own home - they know these things happen. We may prefer to think they don't and want to protect them but the real world is not a fluffy fairy tale and Tender Morsels involves the good and the bad that happens in the real world.

There is no happily ever after romantic ending in Tender Morsels and it is not a comfortable read but it is an eminently satisfying one. I recommend this novel highly. I am not surprised it received a Prinz Honor Award this year.


Satima Flavell said...

I loved this book. But as a parent and grandparent, I would not like to see young teens read it. The opening chapters are quite horrific ( and more than explicit enough for the age group)and would scare a young virgin out of her wits, I should think.

Imagine me said...

I agree it's definitely not for the less mature teens but I have to say that due to an understanding librarian and parents I was let loose in the adult section of the local library when I was eleven. I read quite indiscriminately and I know my mother was horrified at some of what I read (I overheard conversations between my parents about it) but even so she didn't intervene. The point is though that I realised years later when revisiting some of these books that what I wasn't ready to understand had gone over my head completely. I suspect that, if I had been presented with Tender Morsels, because there is no graphic or explicit description I would not have understood the violent sexual content. I would have understood that Liga was badly hurt by her father and the boys but not exactly how because it was outside my experience so I couldn't fill in the gaps from my imagination.

Satima Flavell said...

You could be right. But I wonder which is worse - understanding and being cared or misunderstanding and being scared? I'd say maybe 15 is an OK age to read Tender Morsels, but not younger.

Imagine me said...

I think it depends very much on the maturity of the reader but generally I would agree that around 14-15 would be an appropriate age. The thing is because the actual acts of violence in Tender Morsels are not graphically described - apart from the miscarriage - we have to supply the details ourselves and if we don't know these things we can't do that. A thirteen year old with no sexual knowledge or experience wouldn't be any more enlightened after reading it. When the debate took off I went back to read the book again and apart from the miscarriage the actual events are not described graphically.

Having fairly recently made my way through the teens with my youngest child I'd be very surprised if she and her friends would have found most of the things in the book outside what they had heard about or witnessed. Talking to them now it's fairly obvious that although these were 'good' kids from 'good' homes in a 'good' part of town they were under no illusions about what evil the world can hold. They had already personally seen things that I would have hoped they wouldn't - a knife attack at a Blue Light disco for under 13s, a knife wielding 15 year old who attacked a teacher, sexually active girls who shared the details graphically (That's not new, of course. It was going on when I first went out teaching and no doubt before that.), a parent in the school grounds armed with a chisel and threatening a child and a teacher who intervened, a girl murdered in front of her classmates, a trans-sexual boy assaulted, violence between family members and the tragic accidental deaths of a family they knew well and these are only some of those I knew about.

Okay so they didn't know the details of miscarriages personally but they had taken part in discussions, both in the classroom and outside, about rape, incest, sex, suicide and violence by 15 and most were well aware of these issues before then. People they knew had experienced or been connected with all of these things and, although they believed in the way of the young that they personally were invulnerable, they knew these things happened. Some things they kept quiet about because they didn't want to upset their parents - and it wasn't because they feared the consequences. They, as 14-17 year olds, saw it as something we couldn't cope with! That one really threw me.

Yes I would like to believe that teens don't understand or have to know about these things but in reality even if they don't personally experience them they are plastered all over the news media, they can be found on the internet and there's no way we can shield them apart from complete isolation.