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The Strange Worlds of Margo Lanagan

2011 October 19

Recently I’ve had a few sharp bouts of insomnia, and found myself up at 3am scouring my shelves for the just-right thing to read myself away from worry and into sleep. What I settled on was one of Margo Lanagan’s short story collections, Red Spikes. Lanagan is said to write fantasy fiction for young adults, but her stories are totally unlike anything else I’ve read in either of those categories, and in the overlap.

Weird tales, well told

For one thing, her stories are more original, imaginative and accomplished than much of what is served up to young fantasy readers. The reason I reached for Red Spikes a few nights ago is because I wanted to be transported. I wanted a way out of my worries, and in her short stories Lanagan places you in an (often unnervingly) immediate, vivid and visceral other place.Red Spikes book cover showing a woman's throat with a necklace of thorns

She’s economical with the detail she gives you, winding her descriptions around dialogue or a protagonist’s thoughts rather than self-consciously setting the scene. The situations and societies she presents feel solid, brutally so at times, without you needing to be told what colour the sky is. The story is about the situation, not the setting, if you see what I mean.

And those situations are genuinely unusual, strange and surprising. You can set your story on the third moon of Azkablam and still make it clichéd, formulaic and dull as ditchwater (famed for its dullness). In Red Spikes and another collection, Black Juice, a girl watches her sister killed in a tar-pit as punishment for murdering her husband, while elsewhere in a circus-y dystopia two anti-clown vigilantes carry out a hit. A girl in a paper dress graduates from Bride School, and a boy finds some tiny figures of a bear and a heavily pregnant armoured queen who grow and come to life in the night. Naturally, he is enlisted as midwife.

Lanagan’s stories are bizarre, and even when you’re in more familiar terrain they’re often told from an unusual point of view. In Black Juice a village is periodically attacked by terrifying underground ‘yowlinin’ monsters. So far, so Tremors. But the tale is told by an ‘untouchable’ outcast, treated as a monster herself, who saves the life of the boy she loves only to be rejected. However, UNLIKE the Little Mermaid, she doesn’t wimpily dissolve into seafoam, but sees him for the coward he is and strides away into her future.

These synopses have probably given you a clue that as well as being strange, Lanagan’s stories are often pretty dark. And if you think Harry Potter is ‘dark’ you may be in for a shock: the first few chapters of her novel Tender Morsels include child abuse, incest, forced abortion and gang rape.

Tender Morsels

Here’s a review that describes why I think it’s a remarkable work. But it is distressing. Briefly: 14-year-old Liga lives in the usual cottage-on-the-edge-of-the-dark-forest with her father, who repeatedly rapes her. When she becomes pregnant, he forces her to have an abortion. He dies, but she discovers she has become pregnant again. She has her Tender Morsels book cover showing two girls running through a wood, with the shadow of a bearbaby and lives alone in relative peace in the cottage until some boys from the nearby town come to find her and sexually assault her. Liga despairs, takes her baby daughter to a ravine in the forest and tries to kill them both, but they are magically saved and wake in what seems to be a parallel world in which she is at last safe. The townspeople have been replaced with kind, two-dimensional versions of themselves, and in this world there are no men. It seems to be a heaven that Liga has created to protect herself and her daughters (she has another baby). But as her daughter grows up the membrane between their protected world and the world Liga left behind starts to grow thin, and the story becomes a reimagining of the traditional fairytale of Snow White and Rose Red.

Of course, when it was published Tender Morsels met with a fair amount of controversy, but I agree with Lanagan when she says “I guess I’m not a big fan of corralling sex, death and war into the adult world and then giving children a terrible shock when they realise their existence.” Besides, there is nothing graphic, titillating or exploitative about the descriptions of the abuse suffered by Liga in the novel. One of the things the book is about is how people take refuge and heal from trauma.

Women in fairytales

It’s also about fairytales, and women’s lot in them. Asked in this interview why she was drawn to the Snow White and Rose Red story, Lanagan said:

Mainly I was annoyed by what the Grimm Brothers had done with Caroline Stahl’s story, that is, rewritten it to deliver a very oppressive message to girls and women: At all costs, however beastly your menfolk’s behaviour, remain nice, kind and always willing to come to their aid. This kind of message is not uncommon in the collections of transcribed and revised folktales of the 18th and 19th century, and it’s distressing that those versions are often mistaken for the root stories – although they still sometimes contain the germs of the originals, they are very much products of their times and societies.

So, the irritation was the main thing, but then I couldn’t resist a story that had such a great character as the ungrateful dwarf, the kindly bear and the three bemused women, trying to make good lives for themselves in an ever stranger world.

Black Juice book cover, silhouette of a woman become a treeLike Angela Carter, Lanagan seems to be interested in the rawer, messier, less moral incarnations of our familiar fairytales, but where they differ is that Lanagan’s story fully inhabits the folkloric style where Carter’s versions are self-conscious and ironic.

The final thing I love about Lanagan’s stories is that they’re full of GIRLS and WOMEN! All kinds of different ones! With different personalities! And they do things! In Tender Morsels there are two witches, both distinct and full-developed characters, with powers and flaws and everything. The novel deals with violence against women, but also with women’s sexuality and desires.

I can’t say I’d recommend them to help you get to sleep, but Margo Lanagan’s stories offer strange worlds to be explored.

One Response leave one →
  1. October 19, 2011

    Sorry I couldn’t help with the insomnia, Sarah! :D *works on lengthy, soothing and slightly dull story for Sarah*

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