Title: Scary Monsters
Author: Michelle de Kretser
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, October 2021, RRP: $32.99
Sri Lankan-born Michelle de Kretser was educated in Melbourne and Paris.
She has seven novels and many awards to her credit, including the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice.
Scary Monsters is two novellas, one set in the future and one in the past. Each story begins at different ends of the book, so that in a clever metaphor for a world turned upside down, the reader must turn the book over to read the second story.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Australia is a land of heavy surveillance. Frightening Big Brother themes escalate as individuals, actions and organisations are increasingly proscribed. Practising Islam is an offence. Nervous citizens download the Whack-A-Mullah app and play it every day. As chilling attitudes to “disposables” spiral, a government with one eye on an economy perked by inheritance spending passes “the Amendment”, removing checks on assisted dying. Melbourne’s crematoriums flourish as the elderly are pressured to “take the Amendment”.
Lyle and Chanel are names an Asian couple chose when they migrated to Australia. Both have well-paid jobs. Lyle works in a government sector and De Kretser has great tongue-in-cheek fun with his indoctrination and blinkered ignorance. The family lives in an upmarket suburb with effervescent names like Spumante Court and Brandivino Drive and send their children to private schools. Still, they must be vigilant. While the terrified adults go to extremes to fit in, their children “shake the grass”. When his university drop-out son chooses an off-the-grid lifestyle in a no-footprint commune, Lyle explodes: “…our motive in coming to Australia was to ensure that our children would never have to live in improvised shacks without proper sanitation”. Their sighing, eye-rolling drama-queen daughter has a different perspective to her parents on absolutely everything, lives in the world of Instagram and calls Australia “Loserland”. This story of people from other cultures walking a permanent tightrope to fit in without giving offence is lightened with biting irony. “Australia is an egalitarian place. The rich aren’t discriminated against and left to fend for themselves here.”
Violence against women, French colonialism and classic art are recurring themes.
In 1980s France, Madame la Guillotine still casts a shadow. Twenty-two-year-old Lili, an Australian of Asian heritage, is teaching English in Montpellier, France. She struggles with the language and customs and discovers that “there is something brutal about being flung into a foreign language.” Lili’s dark skin sees her caught up in a police dragnet but her Australian passport saves her from being bundled into the gendarmes’ van with other people of colour.
Lili admires Simone de Beauvoir. She wants to be both “Sexy Modern Woman” and “Bold Intelligent Woman”. De Kretser addresses female sexuality with uninhibited ease, with Lili fully appreciating being a woman, luxuriating in her sensuality and sexuality and, at the same time, needing to deflect the scary, unwanted attentions of Monsieur Rinaldi, her creepy neighbour.
Punk’s scruffy, second-hand aesthetic is in vogue and Lili is shocked to discover that her op-shop dressing friend Minna is really filthy rich. But is Minna really befriending Lili, or is she using her?
Scary Monsters is irresistible reading. The novellas progress via a series of vignettes. Both stories are unsettling and challenging. They include themes of migration, family, misogyny, ageism and racism. Dickensian in their ability to spice dark stories with laugh-out-loud humour, they are both hilarious and sinister, and alive with delicious original metaphors. Scary Monsters is clever, witty and inventive, a thoroughly recommended must-read.
Reviewed by: Maureen Riches
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group
Review copy provided by the publisher