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