It’s rare to see a rewritten fairy tale nowadays. I mean really rewritten, to the point where the story is almost not a fairy tale any longer, but an uncanny mirror of both the horror and magic to be found within our reality. The back cover of Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels states that it is a “dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them.” The story derives its basic plot from the Grimm’s tale of Snow White and Rose Red, but then Lanagan deconstructs, reweaves, and rebuilds an entirely new narrative that worries the borders of my world. I would like to call it a fantasy novel, but I can’t because it didn’t allow me to escape to any unreal place where magic saves me. I think the label of horror novel might work, but even that falls short of the range of emotions I felt. No, I’m going to have to place this tale into that special, powerful genre of the uncanny and grotesque.
The story follows the life of Liga, a woman who is given her own made-to-order heaven as a refuge after surviving a number of brutal assaults. There she lives with her two girls, Branza and Urdda, who are visited by strange bears and a nuisance of a dwarf. This strangely peaceful world moves at a different speed than the original one (much like in Narnia—more time can pass there while only a day goes by in true reality). However, while it is devoid of “terrors [that] could immobilize” Liga, it also is devoid of “wonders,” too (317). This heaven, then, becomes uncanny, for the fantasy cannot hold—one daughter, Urdda, goes back to the real world. Soon Liga and Branza must follow. In one sense, Lanagan’s story chronicles a woman’s journey from violence to dissociation and back to integration. She has missed years. Lifetimes, even. Liga’s return brings her certain kinds of healing even while uncovering other, deeper losses. The daughters are all wildness and wondrous, and keep the story moving in the direction of redemption despite the magic and horror.
Some might say this book isn’t for everyone, but I will disagree. This book should be read by everyone: women, men, brothers and mothers, sisters and fathers. Kafka once wrote: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us” (qtd in Koelb, 72).
Forget waiting for a thaw. Buy this book, and make the swing count.
Koelb, Clayton. Kafka’s Rhetoric: The Passion of Reading. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.
By Nancy Hightower