Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

After being attacked by her father and by a group of boys from town, Liga is so unhappy in her life that she attempts to kill herself. Instead, she is magically transported to her heaven, a world like the one she left except that people are kind and she never lacks money. There she is able to raise her daughters, Branza and Urdda, safe from the harshness and coarseness of the world. But when Urdda finds her way back to the real world, she discovers a way to return to the heaven in which she grew up and bring Branza and Liga back as well, tearing them away from the life they have known and loved. Tender Morsels is a beautiful and disturbing retelling of the story of Snow White and Rose Red, a story I remember from childhood.

The first 50 pages of this book are absolutely brutal, featuring incest and a gang rape. Nothing is explicit, but I still had some difficulty getting through it. I have to say, though, that it was worth every single word, particularly for these passages, in which a woman is speaking to Branza, who wants more than anything else to return to her mother’s heaven, where she was so happy:

“My dear, I see by your misery–by this very request you are making–that you know more of true men’s and women’s hearts than once you did, than your mother’s world permitted you to see. Such chipped and cracked and outright broken things they are, are they not? They have their illnesses too, and their impulses. And hearts are not always connected well to minds, and even if they are, minds are not always clear and commonsensical. A heart may desire a thing powerfully indeed, but that heart’s desire might be what a person least needs, for her health, for her continuing happiness . . . You are pure-hearted, Branza, and lovely, and you have never done a moment’s wrong. But you are a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks your heart. However sweet that other place was, it was not real. It was an artifact of your mam’s imagination; it was a dream of hers and a desire; you could not have stayed there forever and called yourself alive. Now you are in the true world, and a great deal more is required of you. Here you must befriend real wolves, and lure real birds down from the sky. Here you must endure real people around you, and we are not uniformly kind; we are damaged and impulsive, each in our own way. It is harder. It is not safe. But it is what you were born to.”

Just after I read that, I told Mike that I had read the thing that was the heart of this novel, the bright center that all the darkness revolved around. This is a book about the difficult truth that living in the real world, with all its pain and sorrow and hurt, is better than withdrawing and living in denial and fear of the difficulties of life. For, as Liga and Branza and Urdda learn, the pain in the real world might be more than we can always bear, but here joy and love are also much deeper and more vivid than in our fantasies.

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