I read Margo Lanagan’s novel ‘Tender Morsels’ about four years ago in a Youth Services class I took as an elective for my MLIS degree and had never read anything like it in my life. It was one of the most bizarre and original novels I’ve ever read. I don’t know why it took me so long to follow up on her other books but I have begun to remedy that with the reading of her pre-‘Morsels’ collection of stories, ‘Black Juice.’
While there is no story with the title “Black Juice” in this collection, that phrase is very appropriate for the flavor of these strange fantasies. I know that Lanagan is from Australia and, while some of the stories have obvious Australian settings, others could occur anywhere. I also know that she wrote children’s stories for a few years before moving up the age scale into the ‘Young Adult’ category. However, that label can be misleading here. She writes fantasies that are beautifully written, highly metaphorical meditations on surreal settings that would be utterly natural within the realm of a dream and yet strangely unsettling if one tried to place them in this world.
The opening story, “Singing My Sister Down,” sets the tone for the collection. Told from the point of view of a boy who, along with the rest of his shamed family, must participate in his sister’s public execution by forced sinking inside a tar pit. The very casual and natural tone of the narration is reminiscent of the horrific Shirley Jackson story, “The Lottery,” with a Down Under setting. The girl, her family and all the spectators accept the entire ceremony as a perfectly natural form of justice.
Another story, “Sweet Pippit,” is told by one of a herd of elephants searching for their human keeper, whom they perceive to be in some sort of danger. “My Lord’s Man” deals with a servant’s reassessment of his mistress’s urge to dance with the Gypsies. In “Earthly Uses,” a lad’s quest for the aid of angels leads to liberation from the tyrannical force of his grandfather. “Red Nose Day” deals with hit men knocking off clowns. The most ‘realistic’ story deals with a young woman’s journey to her grandmother’s funeral but takes place in a highly toxic, polluted world. The final story in the collection, “Rite of Spring,” is, like most fairy tales, highly mythic and metaphorical about the ushering in of the next season.
All of these stories defy straightforward summary. The common thread running through all of them is a tone of naturalism struck by the narrators (all but one of the stories are first person narratives) in strange, familiar settings with obvious qualities that lend to the alien and alienating qualities of their environments. Almost the only aspect that might qualify them as ‘young adult’ is the fact that all of the protagonists are either children, teens or young adults. Many of them deal with the cultural expectations of parents or grandparents.
The ‘young adult’ label should not be a deterrent to any readers who claim that they never read young adult fiction. I would recommend this collection to anyone who appreciates the fantasies of Ray Bradbury, the horrific tales of Edgar Allan Poe or Shirley Jackson or anyone who ever loved Rod Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone.’