Outside a small village in (a slightly more magical) medieval Germany, Liga lives alone with her father. Who has been raping her regularly since she was twelve or thirteen. Liga’s life improves somewhat after her father’s death and the birth of her daughter, but a violent gang-rape undoes what little contentment she’s eked out for herself. Liga’s despair and desperation somehow push her into the magical world of her heart’s desire: a well-kept cottage near a quiet village where the taverns don’t serve alcohol and there is a no money, where women like and respect her, and where men are few, keep to themselves, and never threaten. It’s a peaceful and, above all, a safe place for Liga to raise her daughters: snow-white Branza and rose-red Urdda, with only a few incursions from real-world teenage-boys-in-the-shape-of-bears
It’s a fascinating book.
Mostly told in the third person Tender Morsels follows Liga’s life and focuses on her and her daughters. The deviations are lengthy first person sections told in the voices of men – some sympathetic, some really not – liberally interspersed through the book. These help the plot move along and provide context for the events in Liga’s dreamworld, but they do more than that; allowing these men to have a voice gives the book a balance it may not have otherwise had. Men are the primary instigators of violence and invasion in the book, but they are also thinking people. Even when they’re bears.
Rather than following a typical narrative arc (exposition -> rising action -> climax -> falling action ->dénoument), it proceeds rather like life: shit happens, it’s quiet for a while, other shit happens, minor shit happens, it’s quiet for a while, there’s a major change, it’s quiet for a while… and so on. This does make the book less sticky/gripping than many; you’re walking calmly through the book, not being pulled headlong by the movement of the plot. It’s also a relief; the plot revolves around some pretty horrible things and still other disturbing things, but, as life and time facilitate healing after trauma, the lifelike pacing facilitates the reader’s processing of what’s been read.
That the book spans years also lets Lanagan illuminate the nature changeability of desire, and the limits of our foresight and imagination. They live in a world constructed out of Liga’s desires as a traumatized fifteen-year-old, but she and her daughters grow and age; and as their desires change and grow, the limits of their world become apparent. It keeps them safe, but it cannot keep them from loneliness. At the same time, the very protection it gives hampers them as they grow older and must deal with incursions from the real world. And it keeps them content but not happy.