Saturday, 8 August 2009
I came to this book with tremendous prejudices, based on the synopses I had read. So I’ve decided not to précis the story. Most reviews mention that it is a re-working of the Brothers Grimm story Snow White and Rose Red, so I will re-cap that instead:
Snow White and Rose Red are sisters, daughters of a poor widow, who live with their mother in a remote cottage. They are devoted to each other though Snow White is the more domesticated of the two. One night in winter there is a knock at the door and a great black bear asks for shelter from the snow. Encouraged by their mother, the girls groom and cosset the bear, who is gentle and becomes a family friend.
He leaves in summer to guard his treasure from dwarves. Three times the girls see the same dwarf, trapped by his beard, in a tree, in a river and in the talons of an eagle; each time they rescue him by cutting off some of his beard or tearing his coat. The odious little man is ungrateful to them.
The fourth time they meet him, he is gloating over an array of stolen gems and becomes incensed at the sight of the sisters. Just then a black bear comes roaring out of the forest. The dwarf pleads with the bear to take the jewels rather than hurt him, or to eat the “tender morsels” of the “two wicked girls.” The bear kills him with a blow and reveals himself as a handsome prince in disguise, enchanted by the dwarf. He marries Snow White and his previously unmentioned brother marries Rose Red and they live happily ever after.
Now, Tender Morsels is not a re-telling of this story; it is what used to be called in my daughters’ schools a “creative extension.” And it extends both fore and aft. The short prologue, ignored by most reviewers, who can’t wait to get on to the rape and incest, is told from the point of view, first person, of the dwarf, whom Margo Lanagan names Collaby Dought. He has just had his first sexual experience, with a fellow-orphan named “Hotty Annie”. After the deed, she makes patterns with her fingers on his forehead which show him a land of his heart’s desire, where everyone is shorter than him and he is well-respected.
This makes it hard to hate him when you need to.
The other “fore-extension” is about what happened to the widow before she lived the idyllic life with her two differently-hued daughters, in the rural cottage and it is this part which put me off when I first read about it. But Lanagan is trying to create a situation so horrible that a young teenage girl could bring a whole alternative world into being just by wanting it enough. The sort of world Elizabeth Fritzl might have imagined. It might seem strange to say it but the repeated rape and incest and the gang rape are not the most important parts of the story; they are merely the catalyst that brings about the transition from one reality to another.
The “aft-extension” is about what happens when the mother and her two daughters cross back, at different times, into the real, dangerous world. In between there is the marvellous episode of the bears.
It is in the part about the bears which made me believe the exaggerated claims made for Lanagan’s imagination and writing style. In the real St. Olafred’s – a sort of all-purpose Teutonic town where people have names like Jans and Todda – there is an annual bacchanal where young men are clothed in bearskins and given licence to roam around chasing and kissing girls. (Lanagan says this is based on the bear ritual of a town in Catalonia).
One breaks through into the otherworld of Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda, and becomes the Good Bear of the Grimm story. But there are others less gentle and less gentlemanly. As I say, everything about the bears is quite wonderful and leads me to hope that there is a better book to come from Margo Lanagan.
Because this one isn’t quite right. It is an uneasy mix, with a sort of Robin-McKinley- on-acid feel to it. Or Angela Carter meets The Truman Show. And the minute you are reminded of Angela Carter, you sort of lose patience with Margo Lanagan, who, for all her obviously huge imaginative powers somehow lets the story get away from her.
Because it is broken-backed. Once the mother and daughters are re-united round about page 320, there is still another third of the book to go. What could she possibly put in it? The story starts up again, introducing new characters, new bears even, and then, after a prolonged description of the women’s reintegration into the real world, an ending so piercingly sad for Liga, the mother, who was once the abused child, that it is unbearable (pun intended).
The message, or one of them – for it is as full of messages as a post-Bettelheim view of the Grimms can be – is that most men, with a few honourable exceptions are nasty, brutish (and sometimes short). Indeed the brutes come out better than the male humans. And the male humans who have abused Liga are given a horrific, though magical realist, punishment at the end, which no-one seems to have noticed. (Maybe some of those who rushed to condemn the book didn’t actually finish it?)
It’s not a book or a view of sexual relations that I should have wanted to offer my three daughters, all now living with good men, when they were teenaged. Not because I am outraged by the sex scenes but because I am depressed by the world view in which they take place. Lanagan imagines the beast within the man so much more vividly than the man within the beast.
But it is a terrific read for all its faults. And a book worth our serious consideration.