‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle De Kretser: A Book Review

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Scary Monsters is a curious beast. It’s essentially two novellas packaged as one novel. The book is printed with each half inverted to the other. Whichever way you open the book, you find the start of a story. Two stories, both called Scary Monsters. Intrigued? I certainly was, especially when I learned that one of the stories is set in a dystopian near future. 

What Is Scary Monsters?

The two stories contained in Scary Monsters are very different from one another. Both deal with being outsiders and both examine immigration, ex-patriation, and belonging. Author Michelle de Kretser is a Sri Lankan-born Australian, and both stories are tied to Australia. 

In the first, set in the 1980s, Lily is teaching English in Paris. She is an Australian of Asian descent, making her difficult to pigeonhole by many Parisians; she doesn’t fit their ideas of an Australian nor somebody from Asia. This story examines living life in a foreign country, how language can be a barrier to belonging, and how strangers’ preconceptions inform their impressions of you. 

It is also a story of power between sexes, the experience of a young woman far from home, and the attempts by the men she encounters to exert power over her. 

The second story is set in a near-future Australia; one that is isolated due to its policy of climate indifference. This Australia is on the verge of collapse. The air quality is horrendous; it can be dangerous to be outside. Soaring temperatures have made living in rural areas impossible. “Ruros” have fled to the cities, filling them up, causing urban space to sprawl further and further away from city centers. 

A hard-right government has made life for immigrants extremely difficult. Our narrator, Lyle, is from a country he refuses to admit to. It’s safer that way; keep thinking Australian. Do not bring attention to yourself as being “other.” Lyles’s aging mother lives with them in their house. In this Australia, one that struggles for resources, voluntary euthanasia is actively encouraged. “Taking the Amendment” is a celebration of a selfless act for your loved ones and your community. 

Why Read Scary Monsters?

There’s an argument to say that the presentation of these two stories together is a gimmick. The two do share some similar themes, but in tone and scope, they’re wildly different. I noticed little commonality between characters and setting, though both our narrators, Lili and Lyle, are Australian by way of Asian heritage. The worlds they are experiencing and the stories they are telling are very different from one another. 

That said, the two narratives do offer us two sides of the same coin, examining society and belonging. I enjoyed the dystopian vision more, as I like that type of fiction, but the tale set in 1980s Paris also has a compelling otherness to it. 

In many ways, I’m ill-equipped to review Scary Monsters. I am both white and live in the country in which I was born. The discrimination experienced and the vitriol directed at Lily and, in particular, Lyle is not something I will ever be victim to. In order to keep his life running smoothly, Lyle does his boss’s work for him, hoping to ensure he has credit in the bank should the draconian immigration forces come knocking on the door. 

There was an unexpected sub-plot that turned Lyle’s story on its head for me. It examines his relationship with his mother and, more particularly, the triangle of wife, husband, and mother-in-law. It also taps into the fear of becoming old and the difficulty of elder care, where the community has broken down and the lives of the young take precedence. Having recently lost both my parents, one after a long struggle with Parkinson’s, these sections of the book were particularly affecting. De Krester poses some tough questions and offers unpalatable answers. 

Scary Monsters is not a “nice” book. It’s not meant to be, and the clue is in the title. It’s a book that, whilst not a difficult read, often had me wondering why I was reading it. Yet, like all good literary fiction, it has remained with me for days afterward. It’s not the events of the two stories that are so compelling but the manner in which their themes and questions have lingered, long after I finished reading.

The book is called Scary Monsters. It has two stories, but who or what, exactly, were the monsters? I’m still not sure. I keep thinking of new ones every time I read the book. Some were obvious, others less so. The dual narrative and layering of the theme make this book an intriguing read. I wouldn’t necessarily say you must read Scary Monsters, but I can confidently say you won’t regret it if you do. 

If you want to pick up a copy of Scary Monsters, you can do so here in the US, and here in the UK. (affiliate links)

If you enjoyed this review, check out my other book reviews.

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for a review. 

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