by Margo Lanagan
Tied for 2009 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
There were several times while reading Tender Morsels that I had to stop and double check the dust jacket and the publisher's page. I had to make sure I wasn't mistaken when I saw that the jacket identified it "a junior library guild selection" and it was published by Random House Children's Books. I kept checking because I could not conceive how Tender Morsels could have been published as a YA book; it's far more mature in every sense of the word than a vast majority of novels I have read targeted for adults. It's also an exceptional book partially for that reason.
A young girl who has been raped retreats into a dream world made physical in order to raise her daughters. They have an idyllic existence there until the bubble of their reality is punctured by a a man seeking wealth. After that things leak into their world from outside and they have to start dealing with the less than perfect nature of the real world.
The first thing that I have to mention, and the thing that kept driving me to check that it was in fact a YA book, is that this book features a lot of sex. None of it is explicit but there's around a dozen rapes in the first fifty pages. Lanagan may not go into detail on the physical acts she does not shy away from the emotions. If that wasn't enough the book takes some fairly deep steps into bestiality as the blossoming girls become interested in animal companions. Lanagan is more cautious on side stepping this (laughably so at one point not involving any female characters that read more as an editor forcing a statement on the issue given the context of the rest of the scene) but the concept is just about impossible to avoid.
Sex is a huge theme of Tender Morsels and as you may guess it tends to be neither romantic or erotic. Men are bestial, women are naive, and the two often conflict violently. It makes the few times in the novel where there is a healthy relationship between a man and a woman the odd one out. (Strangely enough there's little in the way of homosexuality but then given the themes tied to sex in the novel it might be better off that way.)
It takes more than just people having (or avoiding) a lot of sex to make a book "mature". Tender Morsels is also about the raising of children and what effect a sheltering environment can have. It's about the changes that a person undergoes throughout their life and the need for companionship. Modern attitudes are crushed hard in this psuedo-medieval land and there is no comforting moral to make up for that. There's a lot of themes to the book that I think would only strongly connect with an adult making this the most adult YA book I've ever read.
I was extremely impressed at the way Lanagan has the story unfold. The book abruptly shifts focus multiple times and every time I thought I had worked out where things were heading Lanagan derailed my preconceptions and threw it into a completely different direction. And every time she did this she made me more interested in what was going to happen next.
The book is not completely without faults. The characters are a bit shallow. While I'm certain that is intentional given the themes of the book I don't like being able to wrap up someone in a few words. There is exactly one positive depiction of a man in the entire book; anyone else who is an adult with a Y chromosome is a monster.
The recent rise of YA books as a publishing phenomenon has been a problem for me with some of the recent Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award Winners. Books intended for a target audience of twelve year olds typically are disconnected from me as an adult reader no matter how well done they are (see The Graveyard Book for an example of that). That is not the case with Tender Morsels. This is a rich novel that I'd recommend to anyone. It's a light-hearted dark-fantasy; a Grimm fairy tale in a modern fantasy style. It is a gripping book and I'm glad I read it.