Saturday, December 17, 2022

Tender Morsels

Margo Lanagan
Completed 12/10/2022, Reviewed 12/10/2022
5 stars

Terrific book.  It took me a long time to get through it, almost two weeks for about 500 pages, but it was worth it.  Judging by its cover, I thought it would be fairy tale-ish.  Instead, it was a dark fantasy about a teen who escapes her horrible existence to live in her own private heaven with her two daughters.  It was beautifully written and mostly engrossing.  Around page 400, I thought it meandered for a while before coming up to a thrilling and heart-wrenching conclusion.  This is another in my World Fantasy Award reads, winning for 2009.

Liga is barely a teenager, living with her abusive widowed father.  She conceives his children, but he gives her herbs from the local witch to stop the pregnancies.  After a series of these, she once again conceives, but this time, the father is killed on the way home.  She bears a daughter.  Within a year, she’s attacked by five teen boys leaving her pregnant again.  She’s about to drown her daughter and kill herself as well when a portal opens up and they go through it.  Suddenly she’s in another dimension, similar to where she grew up, but with none of the bad people in it.  She bears a second daughter and she raises them there in peace and happiness.  Of course, such happiness doesn’t last and one daughter finds her way back to the real world, and the mother and other daughter are soon pulled back as well.  There they must face the hardships that real life holds.

Yes, it’s very dark.  Terrible things happen to Liga and when she escapes to her own personal heaven, you feel nothing but relief for her.  She raises her daughters in a loving home with her horrific memories deeply hidden.  The oldest daughter loves nature and the wild animals.  Of course, here, the wild animals are somewhat tame.  The younger daughter is a little wilder, longing for something more than the simple peace they live in.  She does escape when she finds a portal back to the real world.  

The interesting thing about this heaven is that occasionally, it is punctured through and people from the real world find themselves in Liga’s world.  That’s where the bears come in.  The town has a bear festival and young men dress up as bears and run around chasing young women.  Every once in a while, one such bear ends up in Liga’s world as a real bear.  One such bear ends up living with the family in their peaceful existence.  Another bear with less honorable intentions does the same, but Liga can tell the difference and warns her daughters.  

The prose is tremendous, being lush without interfering with the plot.  The world building is wonderful as well, with lots of surprises throughout.  After the traumatic beginning, I wondered if Lanagan could maintain an interesting, engrossing plot.  She was more than able to accomplish this.  

I loved the characters.  I empathized with Liga and her daughters.  None of the supporting characters were cardboard cut-outs of good or bad guys.  While there is more prosy description than dialogue, the internal thoughts of the characters made them lifelike.  The form of the book is interesting.  When the story is concerning women, it is told in third person omniscient.  When the story is from men’s point of view, it is first person voice.  There are only two men, if I remember correctly, that narrate, the good bear and the not so good bear.  But it makes for an interesting juxtaposition in the perspective.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was deeply moved by it, particularly Liga, so much so that near the end, I could feel my gut clenching at various points.  And it is hard to not be moved by the horrific beginning unless you’re a stoic.  But that combined with the wonderful prose and the originality of the tale made for quite a terrific read.  Even the lull around page 400 couldn’t deter me from assigning this rating.

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