Thursday, November 10, 2011

It may be fantasy but it's not for sissies (Books - Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan)

At a recent party of a friend I will call Radio Woman, the Ragazzo and I met two wonderful writers - Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. Delia and I got talking about fantasy fiction, her genre, and whose books we like and I found myself less than enthusiastic about a certain author she admired. What do you like, she asked me? I like dark works with language that can be either inventive or very straightforward but has a sophistication, and, especially if they're written for younger readers, I like writing that assumes those readers to be smart and resilient. I also generally like, if magic is a part of the story, that its use be integral and expressive about something in the world that we come from, not just a fantasy literary device used out of habit because other successful writers in the genre use it. Well then, she said, I think you will love Margo Lanagan. She was right.

Lanagan's Tender Morsels has strong doses of dark. The story begins with, if I am to be plain, a girl's physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her father and a gang rape. The book is graphic about the violence committed by its characters, whether it is intended to secure goods, make mischief, or have unconsenting sex, but this is not for gratuitous sales appeal, as on television and in film, without experiencing the true horror of Liga's circumstances, the reader would not understand why she goes to such lengths to escape. In addition, Lanagan creates a rustic, fantastical prose that both creates the feel of a specific time and place that is similar to this world and yet not of it, and also cradles the reader with its poetry, saying - you will be safe if you read these horrible things because they are part of a story told with intelligence and care, a story in which I am showing you that beauty is important.
"I'm reckoning I could have you here in the street and no one wuld stop me. Am I right?" And I grasped her bum-cheek again.

She turned on me such a face! If I had managed up a fist, it would have withered on me right then and there. It was not that she were cold, or angry, or scornful; it was that she were not a woman. She were not even a person. Her eyes were white as skylit windows; the wind whistled through her earhole, through her hollow head. I let her go. To be sure, where is the fun of outraging someone if they are not a someone, if they do not feel the outrage; if there is no rule to break, no punishment to risk? You might as well fondle a tree, or poke yourself into a hole in the wall.
A despicable character, but not everything in life is appealing,the very richest experiences in life have their dark side. There cannot be strong love without loss, nor growth without risk and that polarity of wild animal and intellect, safety and challenge is the point of Lanagan's unsettling fairy tale. Liga, having been battered by life before she even reaches 16 years old, creates through some combination of nature and magic an alternative world built only of her dreams. She goes there to live and to raise her daughters without the threat of violence toward them. In fact, she creates a world with no ugliness, no friction whatever.
Everything was reassuringly the same as usual - goodwives going about their business, greeting her here and there - and around and among them the mysterious affairs of men went on, which seemed to involve standing in confident attitudes together and talking earnestly when they were not driving cars or toiling in smithies and workshops. If she drew near any talkers, she knew, they would gently recoil, and glance at her and nod without greeting her, not interrupting their talk.
At one point in the story, Liga approaches a young man in her village to offer herself. He can do nothing but passively lay his hand in hers.
"What was that?" She was hot with fear. "What happened to you just now? To your eyes?"

"You asked too much of me, Liga." He lowered his eyes, but she had seen the sky rushing in them again. "I was not made for it."

"For what?" She hardly wanted to ask.

" feel anything for myself. Lonely or no."

Liga was still with terror. The wind, the frost, and worst of all, the bast emptiness she had seen behind his eyes translated itself into his voice. If she could see them now, they would be blank as the moon.
The trouble is, that we all have some wild animal in us, despite our well developed frontal lobes. Lanagan makes this idea live in her story with her version of a bacchanal - she creates a festival in which the strongest men of the village in the "real world," upon coming of age, dress as bears and for a night the entire village runs amok. However, strong desires cannot be kept endlessly at bay in any world, and Liga's younger daughter, being a willful and impulsive 15-year-old, finally brings this conflict to the fore.

Lanagan's tale is one of healing, and I don't always cotton to that genre. Her tale can even be a little didactic, but the story is truthful, and the imagined worlds have great integrity. The circumstances she creates earn the flights of fancy she takes on and I was rapt with attention to this vivid and sensitive tale.

No comments: