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“Everybody has a part to play,” her mother said. “Bart Seston raises cattle, the butcher slaughters them so we can have food. A midwife brings people into the world, an undertaker buries them when they die. Life is good sometimes, hard sometimes, bad sometimes, and good again.”
“I don’t always understand your part,” Fiona said.
“I am the voice that says ‘I know’ when someone tells me “This is too hard for me to hold on to by myself.” I am the soul who reminds other souls that they are not alone. I cannot bring them solutions, I cannot make their troubles disappear, I can only say that I hear them and I understand. Sometimes that’s enough.”
“Sometimes it’s not,” Fiona said.
Ten years ago I discovered historian Frances Yates through her fascinating account of the life of Giordano Bruno. What interested me the most was her defining the magical systems of Bruno, which he proposed should become a function of the Catholic Church, as a form of early psychology. In effect mysticism was treated of as a means of explaining the secrets of the unconscious mind – centuries before Freud proposed the notion of such a mental facility. I would ally Bruno to more contemporary theorists, such as Julian Jaynes‘ notion of the bicameral mind‘s evolution causing changes in how humans came to perceive reality.
I enjoy fantasy fiction that is not afraid to endorse ‘mythic consciousness’, as a legitimate way of approaching a story. The likes of Yates and Jaynes are rare in that they are academics happy to not condescend to pagan belief systems and mysticism. Of course for writers of the fantasy genre this is their bread and butter – but they also need to beware of that modern chauvenism towards early attempts to explain the world.
The Safe-Keeper’s Secret opens in the traditional manner of a fairy tale. A midnight dash on horseback to an isolated village. An infant child stolen away from the court of a cruel king, hidden in a safe home. What follows feels traditional and surprisingly unique.
Fiona and Reed are raised as siblings by Damiana, the safe-keeper of the village of Tambleham. Only she and her sister Angeline are aware of the true identity of the child delivered to them by the rider from the capital Wodenderry, on the same night Damiana gave birth to her own child. As both women as safe-keepers the secret is safe with them, for that is their purpose, to carry the secrets of people that cannot be bourne alone. Of course some secrets are too difficult to hide. Reed is widely believed by the villagers in Tambleham to be the illegitimate heir to the throne, a claim that Damiana neither confirms or denies.
Fiona believes that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a safe-keeper herself. However, Thomas a truth-teller predicts that she her life will take her in a different direction. As safe-keepers cannot divulge a secret given in confidence, truth-teller’s are incapable lying. Furious Fiona remains determined to prove Thomas wrong, but some secrets once revealed have a habit of changing everything.
What I enjoyed most about this book is how subtle the use of magic by author Sharon Shinn is. Safe-keepers and truth-tellers live according to certain mystical precepts and yet their roles in the community are akin to a confessor, or therapist. Shinn also introduces the idea of a dream-maker, a person who endures great suffering so that others can get their greatest wish, similar to the biblical notion of the scapegoat.
The domestic setting of the story I found remiscent of my favourite fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. I enjoy these kinds of novels, because fantasy I believe is simply an approach to story that embraces unreality. The overabundance of sword and sorcery tropes in fantasy fiction is quite limiting. One issue I have with this book is that the critical notices featured on the blurb mention Robin McKinley twice, an author I am not familiar with. Of course I am speaking to my own ignorance here, but I do think this book could have a wider appeal. While the story opens much like a fairy tale, the plot takes in the uglier side of country living, the miseries safe-keepers have to carry alone such as child abuse, or forced incest. Maybe Shinn does not need the controversy attracted by Tender Morsels, but this is a book with a lot to offer.
Gently told with rich storytelling.
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.