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She had been prepared to love it, but there was not very much to love. She had never seen a baby so thin and wizened. Its face was just creases, thick with down. It had the finest, darkest, sourest lips, disapproving anciently, godlikely, distantly. It had the look of a lamb born badly, of a baby bird fallen from the nest – that doomed look, holy and lifeless, swollen-eyed, retreated too far into itself to be awakened.

I have a confession to make. I have been running scared of this book for years now. Neil Gaiman’s jacket quote – “One of my favourite books in ages…powerful and moving”, – screamed at me from the shop shelves, but I kept on walking. See when Tender Morsels was first published, I read a review which described the opening chapters of this book. Margo Lanagan is a fearless writer, who does not shy away from disturbing material, in this instance rape and incest.

I cannot remember the newspaper in question, but I recall putting it down shuddering and making myself a promise never to read this book. I have said it here before, but as a child I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which left me deeply distressed. Even as an adult I did not want to revisit such matters in my reading.

My confession is that I was very wrong to avoid this book for so long.

Ever since Liga’s mother died, she has been trapped in a small hut with her drunken abusive father. Terrorised and humiliated by him, made to think that she is worthless, stupid and wanton, her father’s cruel taunting breaks her will as he repeatedly rapes her, convincing the teenage girl that his actions are her fault entirely. Longfield keeps his child in ignorance even of the children he begets on her, employing local witch Muddy Annie to supply different kinds of potions and treatments designed to abort them. When her father abruptly dies, Liga is left alone and vulnerable, delivering the one child he failed to kill. She continues to live in the family home, tries to keep to herself, but isolated in the forest she soon falls victim to more brutal outrages.

At her lowest hour, Liga is visited by a strange being, who transports her to another world that in appearance is not that different, and yet those whom she hates are not party to this private heaven. There is plenty of food to eat and comfort to be had. Liga raises two daughters, Branza and Urdda, in this realm where innocence is not punished and childhood is preserved in a permanent state of grace.

As the years pass, others find their way into Liga’s world. The borders between the real world – cruel, callous and full of pain – and this lifelike fantasy realm – where kindness is everywhere and the welfare of Liga’s family prized by both people and animals alike – erode. These strangers seek to exploit the fairy-tale world and threaten the innocence of Branza and Urdda. The two girls react differently to the temptations offered by the ‘real world’, and it is left to Liga to decide whether she will let her daughters return, or whether she will face the horrors buried in her past.

I cannot state this strongly enough – this book is marvellous. Lanagan’s Grimm Fairy Tale is a masterpiece of repressed sexuality and symbolism. Magic is shown to be a means not only to escape the pain of this world, but a tool to be employed to improve it. There are even conniving dwarves and bear-men, although they are quite different from the standards of fairy tales.

Reminiscent of Angela Carter‘s equally revisionist The Bloody Chamber, Tender Morsels is no mere parody. The dialogue is delivered in an unusual pidgin English, that can seem at times childlike, yet at other points deeply threatening. Time and space are rendered fluid by the border between the two worlds and some who cross over assume their actions in Liga’s world are little more than drunken visions, excusing them of any responsibility. Lovers parted by the divide age at different speeds.

For me though the most beautiful scene is Liga refusing the fantasy offered to her by the entity, insisting that she does not deserve it, only to realize that her daughter does and more.

Rich in symbolism and incisive psychological detail, a modern day fairy tale with incredible punch from a visionary Australian author.


For everywhere folk have again taken out the Christ they’ve kept hidden since Catholic days. Now, in every village and hamlet, you can see braided garlic and the holy images repugnant to the monster of Ropraz hanging from the window frames and catches, from lintels, balconies, railings, even from secret doorways and in cellars. Crosses are erected again in this Protestant countryside where none have been seen for four centuries. On hills, beside country roads, the object dominated since Reformation days is erected again. The vampire fears the symbol of Christ? “There, that’ll make him think twice! And the dog is loose.”

History is peppered with tragic accounts of rampant superstition in small communities leading to fevered accusations of witchcraft, vampirism and demonic possession against people whose lives were then destroyed by the enflamed mob. I once had an English teacher who claimed that women accused of being witches were in fact proto-feminists. I find that doubtful. To my mind those accused by the community were most likely already isolated from the other folk in the area, nevermind what they thought, or believed in. Victims of history if you like, our knowledge of the past passed down to us from the dominant narratives of those who dominate.

Jacques Chessex here presents a semi-fictionalised account of actual events. The town of Ropraz in Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century was gripped by tremendous fear after the body of a young woman, the daughter of a local justice of the peace who had passed away from meningitis, is discovered to have been disinterred and interfered with in the graveyard itself. The young Rosa Gilliéron mutilated corpse was found by her own father only two days after she was buried. Ropraz itself having already been moved to great despair by the tragic death of the beautiful girl is incensed at the monstrousness of the crime. The body has been sexually molested, chewed on and even had organs cut away by a sharp blade. Only a fiend could be capable of such a horrific crime. The people take to their homes, arm themselves and whisper to one another at night of the Vampire of Ropraz.

After shock comes anger and a desperate need for swift justice. Accusations are thrown against innocents, family feuds are reignited, suspicion falls on medical students, butchers and well-known criminals. The police are unable to find the culprit and then as the winter snows melt further outrages are committed against two more girls, thought safely resting in their graves. The vampire seems to be on the move, striking out to find more amenable hunting grounds in neighbouring towns. Word of the crimes reach newspaper readers across Europe, Catholic superstitions return to Protestant Switzerland and no one can tell where the fiend will strike next.

Then a man known as Charles-Augustin Fevez, a drunk with an exaggerated gait due to a dislocated shoulder, is identified as the culprit. Found molesting a cow in a stable, the leap from bestiality to bestial savagery is an easy one to make in the eyes of the public. The vampire of Ropraz has been found and the people want revenge.

What follows is a fascinating account of mob-justice and early psychiatry. The descriptions by Chessex may take artistic licence with certain details, certainly this is a more lyrical record than usually found in history books, but he shows a keenly felt personal interest in the scapegoating of Fevez by the community that never wanted him. Not that any argument protesting his innocence is made – this book is more interested in how a human can be made into a monster to excuse the crimes of the people around him. The small towns in Switzerland are in this period crippled by poverty and misery, with alcoholism, incest and mental illness found everywhere:

They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam

There can be no justice, only the exacting of a brief vengeance before life trundles on.

Where before Fevez was an anonymous stable-hand, he is become a celebrity of sorts. A lady in white bribes a warden to be allowed to spend time with Fevez in his cell on several occasions. In a strange inversion, Fevez becomes alike to the virginal innocents he is supposed to have ravished. Chessex ends his tale with the troubled man from Ropraz gaining immortality from an unexpected source.

A very curious record of a grotesque and bizarre historical event.  

I deplore the far too easy analogy between the traditional role of the priest and the current role of the therapist. It can only be made by people who clearly know very little of your profession and less than nothing of mine. You may assuage a troubled mind, but you offer no solace to the soul.

The Catholic Church is facing a losing battle with public opinion these days. The horrific revelations of child sex abuse that have increased in recent years were only made more horrifying with the discovery that the Vatican has made it policy to cover up allegations of abuse in lieu of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. This year Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone went even further and laid the blame on homosexual priests, in effect excusing the Church itself of any responsibility. A long-standing antagonistic relationship exists between the Catholic Church and the gay community, one that has led to the ironical claiming of Christian martyrs as gay icons, such as Saint Sebastian. Even the masochistic imagery of the Passion has itself become confused by sexual ambiguity and it is this blurred line between martyrdom and repressed sexuality that author Michael Arditti explores with his first novel.

Each chapter of The Celibate opens with a continuing narration by an erudite tour guide to a group of astonished tourists. We then flit from, in the first half of the novel, a discussion of the Whitechapel murders by the figure popularly known as Jack The Ripper, to a second narration, that of a troubled young man who has been ordered to undergo therapy. Slowly it becomes clear that the tour guide and the young man, an ordinand in the Anglo-Catholic Church, are one and the same. The therapy sessions are entirely one-sided, with the trainee priest’s life story unfolding almost unprompted, as to his increasing frustration, the therapist never speaks.

He describes how his calling was quite a unique one. As the son of an English Jew it seemed odd to many that he would choose to become a priest, but he feels compelled to study the Catholic faith and make it his own. At the seminary he befriends – and from the beginning we are given to understand was betrayed by – another student named Jonathan, who is fiercely passionate and politically active. The narrator at one point mentions that his one-time friend expounded from the pulpit that the Church’s ban of homosexuality is actually a distraction from the breaking of the more serious taboo of incest in the Bible by figures such as Noah and Lot.

The sudden seizure upon the altar which leads to the narrator’s suspension from his studies results in him working alongside more secular charities for a time. While there he discovers something of his old missionary zeal in trying to help London rent boys. He compares himself to William Gladstone, which in turn reflects the narration by his future self of the attitude towards prostitutes held by the Victorian era. Slowly his religious resolve begins to weaken and he discovers that he has been hiding his true nature from himself, something that the rent boys and pimps he meets are quick to guess at. Can someone believe in a Christian god represented on this Earth by a homophobic church and be gay at the same time?

This book is divided into two sections, each bookended with a different opening tour by our nameless guide. The first compares the hypocrisy of the Victorian era with its condemnation of ‘fallen women’, (allowing for a double-victimisation at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer), to the rampant homophobia of the Church and its refusal of mercy to homosexuals. The second examines the parallels between the plague of 1665 and the present-day AIDS epidemic, with bigotry and intolerance increasing the risk to sufferers of both.

As Arditti has chosen the device of having this character engage in ongoing monologues, via his tour guide patter and therapist confessional, we are privy only to his thoughts throughout. Scholarly discussions of the history of Christianity meet a reserved naivety of a man hiding from himself. As such the reader comes to know this nameless protagonist better than he knows himself – and by extension, we come to understand the dilemma of many priests who are called to betray themselves.

This is a stunning, yet disturbing debut novel. Sex and spirituality are twinned, the bigotry of the Thatcherite era equated with Victorian hypocrisy. A powerfully moving book.

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