Saturday, 23 July 2011

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (2009)

Not for the first time I butt my bear-ish snout up against the problem of writing a praising review. This novel is very good indeed. What else is there to say except, buy a copy, read it? You won't regret it, but you will find yourself wholly immersed in Lanagan's miraculously well-realised double-world (a medievally 'real' world and a medievally 'fairy tale' world, linked by a weird portal). The matter of the traditional fairy tale, in this case Snow White and Rose Red, is treated with all the sophistication and thickness of an unillusioned modern novel, but it is wholly to Lanagan's credit that this rather enhances than undermines the magic. 'This is a very good novel' hardly cuts it. It might, perhaps, make sense to establish a grading scale of veries out of ten; such that I could say 'this is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very good novel'. That could certainly simplify the business of reviewing.

Why is it so very good? Partly because it's just extremely well written: very vividly realised and cleverly made; and partly because the characterisation, though simple (as befits fairy tale provenance; I don't mean 'simplistic', by the way) is genuine and authentic and engaging such that you really care what happens to the agents. Although it does not spare its players (or us) any of the horriblenesses to which mortal life, especially female mortal life, is sometimes prone, it is nevertheless a warm book: I was reminded less of Angela Carter's rather brittle, chilly modern-recastings-of-fairy-tale, and more of Sheri Tepper's wise, lovely Beauty (1991), one of my favourite books. There is wisdom here, too: not only about the way people cope with trauma by relocating themselves, to one extent or other, in an imaginative realm, but also about precisely the limitations of that sort of idealised living, about the way it starts to chafe after a while. I was particularly impressed by the way Lanagan handled her weight of textual precedence. There have been lots of fairy-tale-based modern novels, after all; and lots and lots of portal fantasies where one world leaks into another. But, as far as both antecedents are concerned, the novel deftly and cleverly parleys its influences into something far beyond mere belatedness.

So why only eight veries, and not ten? And why, perhaps more importantly, do I carry on pretending the plural of 'very' is 'veries', when we all know it to be 'verii'? I can't answer the second question, but can have a go at the first. In part the novel is a victim of its own extraordinary success: specifically, its opening stretch -- in which poor put-upon Ligia is raped first (repeatedly) by her father and then by a lairy crowd of village boys -- is so extraordinary and powerful, the reader feels a slackening when the book moves past it into its middle section. It sounds like a grim way to start a novel, no pun intended, and it is grim; but it manages to be both properly horrifying and non-exploitative without ever being offputting. Indeed, the thing that impressed me the most was the way Lanagan renders Ligia's point of view in terms of bewilderment, nausea and a low-level, oppressive sense of being trapped and having no way out. At the moment she is driven to suicide, Ligia translates (perhaps) into fairyland, and is gifted a threat-free, flawless version of her previous life in which she can raise her two daughters, the Snow White Urdda and the Rose Red Branza. The end of the novel is very well judged too: genuinely moving. It acquires its heft in part by virtue of a kind of accumulating sense of horrible inevitability about the way real life, with its danger and glamour, increasingly bleeds into the fantasy realm; and about the way Branza is herself drawn to it. But also the novel toys precisely with our expectations: will things end happily, fairy-tale fashion, or unhappily, according to the logic of the modern novel, a form over which Lanagan demonstrates such impressive command?

But, yes, there's a slight sense of sag about the central sections, well-written and absorbing though they are. I also wondered if Lanagan's versions of maleness, personified here via a fairly venal man of restricted height and two (male) bears, is a touch limited. She apprehends bearish masculinity as a cuddlesome, clumsy, inarticulate thing in one of the bears, and it is well done; and she apprehends it as something more threatening, potentially violent and sensual in the other bear, and it is even better done. But that's as far as the men go, really; the whole gender otherwise becomes a background collection of rapists and users. Although, that said, the focus of the novel isn't on the men; it is, rather, on the women; and in a sophisticated, accomplished way, I think.

One final thing: I read the novel is a 2010 Vintage paperback edition -- the one you can see at the top of this post, there, with the cod-PieĊ„kowski fairy tale silhouette design. I bought it because it piqued my interest in the bookshop, not for any other reason. Nevertheless, it surprises me that it is nowhere mentioned, anywhere upon the cover of this edition, that Tender Morsels won the 2009 World Fantasy Award. I wonder why not?

One final final thing: in amongst my googling I chanced upon this Clarkesworld interview between Lanagan and Jeff Vandermeercat; which is worth your time, and is especially markworthy on account of Lanagan's use of the excellent word 'boofhead'. I intend to start using that one in my day-to-day. It's a fine word.

There is no final, final, final thing.

1 comment:

David Duffy said...

the excellent word 'boofhead'

And the adjective "boofy". It is not necessarily a derogatory description.