Invoking Strong Emotions in the Reader (Tender Morsels)

I recently read Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I admire the way Lanagan invokes mood and strong emotion in the reader.

Tender Morsels tell the story of Liga, a girl who lives with her sexually abusive father. Every few months, Liga gets pregnant and her father forces her to abort the pregnancies. When Liga's father dies in a freak accident, she finally carries a pregnancy to term and gives birth to her daughter Branza.

Newly freed from her father, Liga thinks about destroying the bed they had slept in but leaves it because it is her only reminder of her mother. However, Liga's good fortune doesn't last. Not long after Branza's birth, a gang of village boys invade her house and rape her.

(Oh, did I mention this book is marketed as YA? I’m not going to go into why Knopf was smoking crack with this designation, but Peta Andersen has a nice discussion on her blog on the limits of YA.)

But back to the discussion at hand. The following passage broke my heart.  This passage appears right after the town boys leave Liga.

Liga only walked, only walked away. Slowly, because to walk was to hurt, she put the distance, step by step, between herself and her father’s house, where all her troubles had happened. No matter now that Mam had died in that bed. At least Da had called on Mam’s memory as he misused it. But that strangers should come, and with no awareness of its sacredness, one by one, have of Liga there, and think that that was the place to do such things – well, Mam must be truly dead and gone, and not watching from anywhere; clearly she was of no help to Liga now.

What was it about this passage that made me feel so deeply for Liga? I think it’s several factors.

1. It taps into the universal mother-child bond and the pain of losing a mother.
2.It invokes a well known symbol (mother as protector), and declares it useless. “Clearly she was of no help to Liga now.” Remember the first time you realized your parents couldn’t protect you from everything?
3.It takes away the one sliver of hope that remained to Liga. Her mother's memory was the only thing that kept Liga going during the years of abuse, and it was really effective to declare that memory useless now. It sent a clear message that Liga had no emotional reserves left.

I imagine these techniques and would work for emotions other than sadness as well. For example, you could have one thread of sadness throughout the story that gets resolved in the end. Actually, there's a good example of that in Princess Academy. Perhaps fodder for a future post

Do you remember a passage that made you really sad?  How did it do that?

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  1. The saddest passages I remember are ones near the ends of books. After I've read 300 pages, after I know these characters like old friends, after I've committed to rooting for them.

    Of course, they'd have to be well-drawn, believable characters so I care about them in the first place. But I feel that emotional passages carry the most punch after I've gone through the entire story with the character.

    Also, that book is YA??? I like edgy YA-- but that just seems like a real stretch.

  2. I wept at the end of Tender Morsels, particularly the scene where Urdda gives Branza the locket, and Branza vows to never open it again. I think Lanagan easily invokes emotion through her use of imagery and character development. I immediately related to the characters I was supposed to, and hated the characters I was supposed to because of her effective writing style. This is also one of my favorite books so perhaps I'm a bit bias. As for it being YA, I tend to agree with your assertion that drugs must have been involved ;) It's definitely an intense read, but also a rewarding one.

  3. Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch. YA?


    And... ouch.

    Does this book have a happy ending? I hope to hell it does, man, 'cause that sucks.

    But it is effective writing. Find a tender spot and poke at it. If you as the writer tear up a bit while you're writing a scene, then you might just be getting somewhere.

  4. Simon -- um, I believe the term for the ending is "bittersweet." Many readers cry at the end, and I felt depressed about the world. :-P Kinda like the way I feel after reading Orson Scott Card.