Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 320 pages; 2021.
Australian writer Michelle de Kretser’s latest title, Scary Monsters, is an intriguing object. It is a book of two halves and boasts two front covers — a luscious-looking cherry on one side and a pretty cherry tree in bloom on the other — and the reader gets to choose which story to start with first.
One story is set in the past — France in 1981 — and the other is set in the near future in an alternative Australian reality.
It’s not obvious how the stories are linked other than both riff on the idea of immigration and what it is to be a South Asian immigrant in Australian society.
I opted to start with the Australian section (with the cherry tree on the cover), rather than reading the book in chronological order.
Lyle is an Asian migrant desperate to fit into Australian society and to espouse “Australian values” wherever he can.
People like us will never be invisible, so we have to make a stupendous effort to fit in.
He works for a sinister Government department, is married to an ambitious woman called Chanel, and has two children, Sydney and Mel. His outspoken elderly mother, Ivy, also lives with them.
In this near-future, the country is ruled by an extreme right-wing government, Islam is banned and if migrants, or their Australian-born children, step out of line they can be sent back to where they came from.
Australian values are all about rampant consumerism, being obsessive about real estate and pursuing individualism at any cost. It is late capitalism at its very worst, but there are strong echoes of contemporary Australian life to make the reader sit up and take notice.
There is nothing subtle about this story. It’s a black comedy about ethics, morality, racism and ageism, and I may possibly have underlined at least one paragraph that resonated on every page.
“Australians are never satisfied with what they’ve got. They — we — always want more. We aim for the highest, we strive. It’s called aspiration.”
“It used to be called greed.”
Lili is a young academic who migrated to Australia from south-east Asia with her family as a teenager. Now she’s moved to the south of France to take up a teaching position.
She rents a top floor flat and is creeped out by the tenant who lives below her because he wants an intimate relationship with her, but she’s not interested.
In the local town square, she watches North African immigrants being rounded up by the gendarmes. On one occasion she is also asked to prove her identity because as a person of colour in a predominately white society she’s also singled out as foreign.
This story is more subtle and nuanced than Lyle’s and examines the idea of what it is to be a “new Australian” living in Europe when your face does not match the idea of what an Australian should look like.
All his life, Derek had believed one thing about Australians, and now people like me were showing up and taking that belief apart.
As well as racism, it also explores misogyny and the difficulties young women can face when living alone.
But it ends on a hopeful note, with the election of François Mitterand on 10 May 1981, a left-wing politician at a time when the world was dominated by right-wing conservative governments.
As a whole, I found Scary Monsters uneven because the two different sections are just so different in tone and style. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is that they are both written in the first person in warm, intimate voices.
And while they explore similar themes, they do it in radically different ways: Lyle’s story is essentially speculative fiction told with biting wit, while Lili’s is more akin to literary fiction and hugely reminiscent of de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.
Which story you start with may sway your overall feeling toward the novel.
Opinions online have been polarised, as reviews by Lisa of ANZLitLovers and Brona of Brona’s Books demonstrate.
The novel has been published in the UK and US but with a radically different cover design.
Session at the Perth Festival “Writers Weekend”, 26-27 February 2022
I bought my ticket to see Michelle de Kretser at the Perth Festival when we all thought the Western Australian border was going to come down on February 5, allowing writers from the rest of Australia to attend. A few days later Premier Mark McGowan announced the re-opening would be delayed and suddenly the festival’s lineup of writers from the eastern states was in jeopardy.
But organisers did an amazing job to ensure those writers could still appear, albeit via livestream. Ticketholders were offered refunds on this basis, but I figured it was still worth attending, and so this morning I rocked up to the beautiful setting of Fremantle Arts Centre, a mere two-minute stroll from my apartment, to attend Michelle de Kretser’s event.
The 11.30am session undercover on the South Lawn was hosted by ABC Radio National broadcaster Kirsti Melville, who sat alone on stage while de Kretser appeared on a giant cinema screen behind her.
I’m not going to report on everything that de Kretser said, but here are some of the more interesting points she mentioned:
- She wanted to set Lyle’s story in the very near future rather than the distant future to make it more recognisable for readers.
- She described it as a “black comedy verging on the grotesque” and that Lyle was “the perfect mediocre Australian man”, which elicited many laughs.
- Asked whether it was fun to write, she responded: “It was fun.” A beat later, she added: “And it was dreadful.”
- She set Lili’s story in 1981 and in France because she, herself, had lived there at that time and so was familiar with the region and its politics. She liked the idea of ending the story with Mitterand’s election win because it felt like a “resurgence of hope”.
- That era was also plagued by violence against women, specifically, the Yorkshire Ripper, which is why she explored Lili’s safety fears and the ways in which misogyny impacts women’s everyday lives.
- She wanted to write about the migrant experience, but not in a standard way because she felt she had done that before. And she wanted to change the representation of Australians in Europe, which are usually white.
- The book’s upside down, flip-it-over style format is deliberate. It’s supposed to be a metaphor for what happens when people migrate: their lives are thrown upside down and it can take a long time to feel settled. She wanted the reader to experience that feeling.
- She highlighted the definition of the word “monster” as something that “deviates from the norm”, which is what happens to your life when you migrate.
- Writing the stories in the first person was something new for her as a writer — normally she only uses the third person. She has been slightly wary of it because “if your character is female, it’s immediately assumed it’s autobiographical”. She started writing the book in the third person but it wasn’t working for her.
- Another challenge was ensuring that Lyle’s voice was interesting because he was a deliberately bland character trying to become invisible and this is partly why she uses satire to enliven his voice. She used “the language of advertising”, such as brand names for people’s names, to add humour and colour.
- Ageism is an issue that troubles her, which is why she explored this topic through the character of Ivy. “Old women are the least valued members of society,” she said.
- She believes the aged care sector in Australia has been dire throughout this entire century, not just during the pandemic, and she was angry that the Federal Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services Richard Colbeck was still in a job after everything that has happened in this sector during the pandemic, calling it disgraceful and shameful. She said this government’s contempt for the old was shocking.
- She is not currently working on a new novel, describing this as her precious “fallow time”.
ABOUT PERTH FESTIVAL
Founded in 1953 by The University of Western Australia, Perth Festival is the longest-running international arts festival in Australia and Western Australia’s premier cultural event. The Festival has developed a worldwide reputation for excellence in its international program, the presentation of new works and the highest quality artistic experiences for its audience. For almost 70 years, the Festival has welcomed to Perth some of the world’s greatest living artists and now connects with hundreds of thousands of people each year.