Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser review: a brilliant gimmick – but is it a novel?

Book review Michaelle de Krester Scary Monsters fiction novel - Allen & Unwin
Book review Michaelle de Krester Scary Monsters fiction novel - Allen & Unwin

The pedant in me asks: is this actually a novel? Scary Monsters is a double-album of a book. It doesn’t have a back cover and a front cover: it has two front covers, two copyright pages, two sets of acknowledgements, two sets of epigraphs, two author bios, two colophons – and two narratives, tail to tail with one another. So fastidious has the publisher been in making sure there’s no indication as to which end the reader’s supposed to begin reading at, that they’ve put the barcode on the spine. It’s sort of magnificent, and it’s also sort of gimmicky.

The question I ask isn’t just pedantry, though. If de Kretser intends us to read these two stories as a single novel, that deserves to be taken seriously. And it’s intriguing: these two stories are set on opposite sides of the world and decades apart – one in a near-future Australia; one in early ‘80s Paris – and don’t share a single character. They both close, in the most poised of hand-offs, with images of an orchard bursting into white blossom – “one of those puzzling connections suited to dreams”. And they share a theme – the experience of migration – treated in each one in rather different ways.

The 1980s section is narrated by Lili, who’s looking back from an unspecified future on a period in her early 20s when she lived, more or less skint, in Montpellier as a high-school teaching assistant. Of Armenian descent by way of Asia and Australia, she’s aware that her brown skin marks her out. At a party in the opening pages the titular Bowie song is playing: “He was a scary monster for sure, I said, citing the Thin White Duke’s admiration for Hitler. Deb said that Bowie hadn’t meant it like that. Every white Bowie fan I knew had told me the same thing.” Yet it marks her out in a different way than the well-dressed North African refugees she sees being rounded up on the street.

The story here loosely tracks the friendship she falls into with a young couple, Minna and Nick. The latter is an earnest, Marxisant aspiring novelist; the former a wannabe artist in punk-ugly thrift-shop chic, backed (of course) by a trust fund. Lili, Simone de Beauvoir seldom far from her mind, is determined to be A Bold, Intelligent Woman, the capitalisation giving the flavour of an intellectual Bridget Jones. This section wonderfully captures the simultaneous aimlessness and excitement of early adulthood, its charged and unstable friendships – while hints of racial and sexual violence and larger political upheavals cast shadows across its absorbing yet inconsequential story.

There’s a heavier hand and a more overtly acidic satire in the near-future story. Lyle and Chanel are a middle-aged couple, Asian immigrants in an Australia edging towards fascism. Islam is illegal, one foreign-born grandparent in four makes you a candidate for deportation, and discussion of the effects of the country’s resolute refusal to have any sort of environmental policy is strictly forbidden. Half of Sydney has crumbled into the sea, the weather is crazy, and the air is smoggy from a Permanent Fire Zone. Yet – frightened, prim and ambitious – Lyle and Chanel try obsessively to fit in; which means reproducing the prejudices of their host country on steroids. Lyle works, Kapo style, as a functionary in a sinister government internal security agency known as the Department. As the story opens, he’s remembering having his dog put down. As it goes on he moves towards persuading his elderly mother to undergo the same procedure.

Whether you think this is one novel or a pair of novellas designed to rhyme with one another doesn’t much matter in the end. De Kretser is a gifted enough writer that she doesn’t need gimmicks. Scary Monsters is a carefully constructed pattern of thematic echoes. Both narrators are, if not unreliable exactly, lacking in self-knowledge. Lili only half-notices how tedious and narcissistic her eccentric friend really is; and Lyle really doesn’t have a clue how small-minded and cruel he and his wife have become. And both their stories are filled with unexpected details, apt quick literary brushstrokes and the gleam of humour. For what it’s worth, I’d call it two novellas: but either way, it’s terrific.

Scary Monsters is published by Allen & Unwin at £14.99. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop