Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser: A tale of two parts

Cover image for Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser Billed as a novel, Michelle de Kretser’s Scary Monsters is split in two rather like Carol Shields’ story of a marriage from both sides, Happenstance. One part is set in early ‘80s France, the other in a near-future Australia. I could have tossed a coin to decide which half to read first or made a deliberate choice but in the end, I picked it up and started reading whichever part was face up. By chance, I began with Lili’s story and so read the book chronologically.

My life was a bridge strung across a ravine: I was moving over it fast, and it was collapsing behind me like a scene in an old film

Lili is an Australian, an Asian whose parents settled in the country when she was a child. She’s used to surprised faces when asked where she comes from, a question which continues in Montpellier where she spends nine months teaching English in the year that the French elect a Socialist government, filling in before taking up a postgraduate place at Oxford. When she meets Mina, flamboyantly fashionable, opinionated and privileged, they quickly become close friends. Lili watches as Algerian immigrants are routinely harassed, her own papers frequently checked because of her brown skin, always anxious as a lone woman in a world where newspaper headlines blare out the latest female murder. Years later, Lili still misses Mina who taught her how to be seen.

Immigration breaks people. We try to reconstitute ourselves in our new countries, but pieces of us have disappeared

Lyle is also an Australian, but his draconian, climate-ravaged Australia is very different from the one Lili left behind. He and Chanel have reinvented themselves, eyes firmly set on the future rather than the past, although Lyle’s mother Ivy reminds them of that now and again. Their daughter has long since departed, working as an architecture intern in the States much of her time taken up with her YouTube makeup channel. Their postgrad son’s ecological activism is much frowned upon by the authorities, busy brushing the devastating effects of climate change under the carpet. Lyle’s strategy has always been to disappear into the background while Chantal forges ahead, willing to do whatever it takes to succeed including disposing of Ivy’s inconvenient presence.

Australia is an egalitarian place. The rich aren’t discriminated against and left to fend for themselves here.

De Kretser’s book reads like two novellas linked by theme rather than character although there is one mention of Lili in Lyle’s section. Both parts explore racism in very different ways: from the oppression of Algerians to Nick’s surprise at Lili’s knowledge of poetry in her section while in Lyle’s repatriation is a constant threat and Islamic practice a terrorist act. The threat of male violence is ever present in Lili’s mind while Lyle’s aged mother is an obstacle to Chanel’s constant need to climb the corporation ladder. Both parts are told with humour, Lili’s more subtle as she pokes fun at her young self while Lyle’s is a dark, often very funny satire portraying a society which is a much exaggerated but all too believable version of our own. Of the two, I preferred Lili’s story but I wondered if I might have felt differently had I read them the other way round. Still not entirely sure why de Kretser chose the format she did. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

Allen and Unwin: London ‎ 9781838953959 320 pages Hardback

6 thoughts on “Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser: A tale of two parts”

  1. I read your review (it was excellent BTW) with great interest, as I “sort of/maybe” have this book on my radar. I read de Kretser’s The Hamilton Case way back when and loved it but somehow (I’m sure you know how this is) never got around to her other work, despite my best intentions (also, some of them didn’t tempt me).
    I’ve read about the format de Kretser used here (two loosely linked sections, doesn’t matter which order you read them in) and have mixed feelings about it. Ali Smith did something similar in How To Be Both (in fact, I think her publisher mixed the sections’ order when it was published); I thought it worked brilliantly but . . . I was glad I read the sections in the order I did, i.e., chronologically. I also have to admit that in the hands of a lesser writer I might not have been so appreciative! Here, it sounds like the structure was a “wash” — neither detrimental nor particularly helpful.
    The story itself sounds very interesting, not to mention timely. Coming from a society (U.S.) where immigration pushes all the wrong buttons for all the wrong people, I’m becoming increasingly interested in its effects on immigrants and their children (I lived most of my adult life in an incredibly diverse community & loved it).
    Enough of the ramblings! I’m really interested in this novel & I’d love to pick up again with de Kretser but I’ve mountains of unread things right now, so it may be awhile!

    1. Thank you, and not rambling at all. I sympathise with that old too many books problem while really wanting to know what you think of Scary Monsters! We also have problems with attitudes to immigration, flames fanned by the Brexit campaigners who indulged in outright lies about it. Now, of course, people a rerealising how much we need immigrants.

  2. I’m not too sure about this one, it seems strange that they were published together. Having said that, I enjoyed Happenstance many years ago, and I have How to Be Both buried in the TBR somewhere, so maybe I should give this a try!

  3. You’ve definitely intrigued me. And I admired de Kretser’s book that was on the Orange list years ago (before it was the women’s Fiction Prize). The structure does make me doubly curious; I love the mere idea of a flip book. And she seems like a deliberate and contemplative author, so it’s clear it was intentional.

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