Saturday 25 February 2023


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Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser  {Reviewed by STELLA}

Scary Monsters is a novel of two distinct parts — two novellas — where you choose which story you read first — Lili's or Lyle's. I decided on chronological order. Lili’s story is set in Paris in the 1980s, and Lyle’s in a near-future Australia. 
If you’ve done an OE to Europe you will immediately step into Lili’s shoes. She’s teaching for a short time in Paris, on her way to Oxford, living at the top (all those stairs) of an apartment building — not charming — in a cold and small room and probably paying too much for the privilege. Definitely paying too much, according to her more sophisticated artist friend, Minna. As Lili, Minna and her boyfriend, Nick, gravitate around each other, the world with all its thorny issues circles them. The newspapers are full of the Yorkshire Ripper case and the police are out on the streets, picking up illegal migrants from North Africa. When the police raid their neighbourhood, Lili is always asked for her ID, while Minna never is. Privilege comes in a fair-skinned box. Lili, an Asian Australian, is used to feeling othered, but you get the distinct impression she hoped to escape some of this prejudice by being among like-minded travellers. Despite being part of a diverse, freewheeling and optimistic group of young people, it’s Lili who is grappling with, and noticing, overt and covert racism, dealing with her creepy downstairs neighbour and sexist behaviour from her wider social group. Aiming for sophistication — she wants to be a modern-day Simone de Beauvoir — but falling for Minna and Nick can only lead to disorientation. This abruptly ends when Minna takes off. There are all sorts of little power plays here, as well as the charge for a bright new future. Lili and her friends celebrate the election of France’s first socialist president. Hope is in the air, but on the street does anything change?
And then switch to Lyle. Lyle’s a middle-aged Melburnian who works in Evaluations at the Department of Security. He lives in the outer outer suburb on Spumante Court with his ambitious corporate wife, Chanel, and his ageing mother, Ivy (who migrated from Sri Lanka when Lyle was a child). They have two adult children: Sydney — who has almost finished his PhD but he’s gone off-grid and is proving a disappointment — and Mel, who’s moved to London to study architecture (an expensive exercise for her parents) but whose ultimate focus is her social media profile. They’ve all survived the Pandemic and the others that followed, and are fortunate — though not as wealthy as some of their fellow corporate Australians — to live in an air-conditioned house out of the fire zones. In other words, this is good for those that can but crap for those who can’t, and ultimately horrendous. As are this family. While Lyle and Chanel spend all their time being as Australian as possible and then more so, Ivy is delving back into her past. Chanel’s pumping for the new apartment and Lyle is torn between the easy life of agreeing and his care for his ageing mother, complex feelings that are foreign to him. Add to this the need to keep yourself as neutral as possible and avoid suspicion from either the securities services or from his wife, you have the distinct impression that Lyle is walking on hot bricks. Navigating this dog-eat-dog world which hates migrants and offers no empathy, Lyle is starting to crack. But can a man with so many layers of veneer crack at all or is he lost to himself? 
De Kretser’s playful and intelligent novel pitches you in and throws you out — it’s both absorbing and startling in structure — and will leave you to ask and answer the question: Who are the scary monsters? The prejudices that bind us to a situation? Or us, humans, ourselves? You choose.

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