“Perhaps that’s what I’ve come back to learn; the ghosts in Malaysia are for good. They’re fragile monsters, these nothings of ours.”
The year is 1985. Durga Panikkar – a lecturer in mathematics – has been living and working in Canada. As the book starts she has returned to her native Malaysia to the house of her grandmother Mary who raised Durga after her mother died in childbirth.
Grandmother Mary still lives in the house in which Durga grew up, in a village a couple of hours drive away from KL.
“The house still feels familiar and strange at once. My childhood home, but I can’t quite manage to be sentimental about it. It’s the wrong sort of home, or perhaps I was the wrong sort of child.”
It is Diwali. An accident with some fireworks sparks off (sorry) a train of events but also a train of memory which leads back to events of World War II and the period known as ‘The Emergency’ immediately after the War when the British tried to stop Malaya gaining independence, while a conflicting number of resistance groups seemed determined that it should.
The action slips back and forth between Durga’s contemporary life, her attempts to rekindle a relationship, and her Grandmother Mary’s childhood, teenhood, the birth of her own daughter Francesca and efforts to survive the war and Japanese occupation.
A couple of strange finds in an unvisited corner of the house precipitate a need in Durga to find out about her mother Francesca – who had died or so Durga had always been told – giving birth to her. She embarks inter alia on a strange series of troubling interviews with her grandmother. But Mary’s life has been built on stories only some of which were true. There are always pasts which are better left unraked and the question is will Durga’s be one of them? Regrettably there is only one way to find out. Sorting out what is and what was, from what wasn’t and what might have been is the challenge for our mathematics lecturer. As Menon points out, when dealing with the dead, theorems only get you so far.
Durga and her grandmother now precariously inhabit – along with one member of staff – a sprawling house with closed off wings the result of her English great grandfather’s predilection for building things before tearing them down again.
“I push the back door open and the wet air hits me with a slap. My bare feet press water up through the grass…. The Jelai rivers roars from behind its banks and the wind flecks my hair with spray as I turn to look at the house. From here, it’s ramshackle.”
Most of the book’s action takes place in the house, or in the jungle, or at various hospital bedsides, all of which proves a little claustrophobic. The author has Hopper-esque abilities to skewer the essential loneliness of the human condition.
This is a clever book, carefully plotted and written. Menon writes with an ironical wit which can make seemingly innocuous statements feel like fingernails being raked down a blackboard.
For example, of the English great-grandfather:
“Stephen’s determined not to go native – bad show – he mutters over his solitary evening whisky – just because he’s alone in a Malaysian swamp with a couple of civet cats fighting somewhere in the roof.”
Fragile Monsters is less about piecing together your past and more of a fight to the death to survive it. Menon pulls no punches in examining human frailties. There is greed and stupidity here aplenty as well as the mindless destruction of a war which – it is timely to remember – didn’t end for everyone in 1945. But there is a sense at the story’s end of a country modernising – “girls in pink hijabs studying behind the durian stalls”. It is a book which amply repays a second reading.
Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon will be published by Viking in 2021
I am grateful to #PenguinUKBooks and #NetGalley for this review copy.
The Rune is taking a break for such seasonal festivities as may be allowed to us. I will be back on the 8th January. Thank you for reading my blog.
I wish all my followers and readers a season of safety, peace and goodwill and a vaccinated New Year.