Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels

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Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (Australia 2008) engages alternations of third-person and first-person narrative for thematic purposes. Most of this novel is a third-person narrative about a woman and her two daughters who live in a world of forests and villages that sounds much like the typical setting of European fairy tales–appropriately so, for the plot centrally involves the women’s dealing with men who transform into bears, as happens in at least one of the Grimm tales. Also appropriately, the plot centrally involves a wish-fulfilment: Liga, who has been sexually used by her father and become pregnant by him three times, finally producing a daughter as a result, and then gang-raped by a group of village boys and producing a second daughter as a result of that, is, magically, given a better world to live in–the world as she would imagine it if it were to her taste, as she wished it. It is unclear why this happens, or who or what gives her the gift.  It is simply what ought to happen to her, and so it does. She still lives near the same village, but in a version of it free of anyone who frightens her or might harm her. There are simply empty spaces where their houses used to be, everyone is pleasant to her, and she learns skills from people who would simply have ignored or looked down on her before.  Liga lives in that utopian safe place, actually cut off from the real world that has forgotten her and knows nothing of her daughters, until the daughters have grown up.

Nevertheless, others accidentally (and dangerously, we are told), break into Liga’s world. All of them are men, and they each tell what happens to them in the first person. But since their mere presence represents the defiling of her place that is so significantly separate from the dangerous sexuality of men, their narratives are anything but engaging. One is a greedy man who persuades a witch to get him there so that he can bring back valuables and get rich. The others are young men taking part in the village’s annual ritual, in which young men dress up as bears and chase and try to kiss all the women in town–a spring festival to make the crops grow, and a playacted springtime freeing of male sexuality from winter sterility, a ritual which presumably works to purge the lust and keep it safe within. In Liga’s world, when these men accidentally enter it, they appear as bears, one a safely restrained bear, the other a more potentially lustful and dangerous one.

Their intrusion also leads to Liga’s daughters getting out of her dream world–a place which isolates and imprisons them even though it is only pleasant, for it is her dream, not theirs. So the novel gives the wished-for place then reveals the necessity of giving it up–the need to be more than just safe, the need to accept the danger of contact with others (especially, it seems, men) in return for the pleasure and humanity of it. But even then, the contacts made through the dream place play out in positive relationships for Liga and her daughters. It has allowed the right people to find each other and to interact in the right way, beyond danger.

The first-person narratives of the men have the effect here of being what they are in terms of plot–intrusive. Not only do they insist on the possibility of another view of the events, but as first-person interruptions of a third-person story, they are alien presences in the dream world that represent various oppositions to its central values of peace and safety and comfort. They are both dangerously unsettling and necessary if these women are to return to a more real and less safe but more alive world. Thematically, they represent the versions of maleness that create both difficulty and desire for women–greed, lust, nurturing and comfort. So the book comes to be about how maleness intrudes into the lives of women–a theme mirrored by the use of alternating first- and third-person narratives.

 

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