Catherine Menon, Fragile Monsters (Viking Penguin 2021)
It’s 1985. Durga’s relationship comes to an end when her lover returns to his wife. She leaves her job as a maths lecturer in a Canadian university and takes her wounded heart back to her native Malaysia where she gets a job at a university in Kuala Lumpur. When the novel opens she has left KL for Diwali to visit her cantankerous grandmother in the village of Kuala Lipis where she grew up. A gift of fireworks goes badly awry, the roads are shut by floods, she stays in the village much longer than expected, and while she’s there confronts the ghosts – fragile monsters – of her past.
In alternating chapters we read the story of Mary, Durga’s grandmother: her childhood, her experience of the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, the Malayan Emergency, her relationship with her daughter Francesca, who was Durga’s mother.
The two narratives come together in the climactic final chapters. Durga makes some deeply disturbing discoveries about her family history, and the great miasma of stories that she grew up with are resolved into some kind of reality.
Throughout, there’s a contrast between Durga’s world view and her grandmother’s. Durga is thoroughly westernised, and loves the world of mathematical exactness and consistency. Her grandmother is a wild woman who tells stories that differ with each telling. Durga finds herself being drawn back into her childhood world of ghosts and half-truths.
I’m glad I read this book. The characters, especially the grandmother in the present time, feel real, and there are rich insights into Malaysian traditional culture and history. (The university in Kuala Lumpur is an offstage presence that tries to pull Durga back to westernised, mathematical reality, but without a lot of success.) But it didn’t sweep me away. It was as if I could always feel the work that was going into the writing – a symptom of this is the occasional reflection on mathematical concepts. These feel like scaffolding the helped the writer create the work, but needed either to be more fully integrated or designated as darlings to be killed.