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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Scary Monsters by Michelle de Kretser review – anger, alarm and satirical glee | Fiction

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Michelle de Kretser’s slyly intelligent sixth novel pairs two first-person narratives. One takes place in a dystopian near-future Melbourne, where Lyle, an immigrant father of two, is employed by the state to write sinister-sounding “evaluations” nominating fellow migrants for arrest and repatriation; the other half of the book is set in 1981 and follows Lili, a 22-year-old Australian working as a teaching assistant in France, prior to postgraduate literary study in Oxford. It’s typical of De Kretser’s sophistication that she leaves the link between these narratives entirely up to you – even the order in which they are to be read is left to the individual reader, given the book’s reversible, Kindle-defying two-way design.

I plunged straight into Lili’s intimately conversational reminiscence of running with a circle of young Europeans attached to her Montpellier lycée, in particular Minna, who takes a year out of art school in London to tag along with her boyfriend Nick. Lili struggles for cash, has problems with her landlord and neighbour, and faces everyday racism (her family emigrated to Australia from Asia, like De Kretser, who was born in Sri Lanka). She can’t help but fall for Minna and Nick’s rackety aura of entitled glamour, not least when she learns that Nick is at work on a novel, something it never occurred to her she could do, even as an aspiring scholar under the spell of Simone de Beauvoir.

As the three knock around together, Lili’s story unfolds as a coming-of-age vignette portraying the lonely restlessness of unfocused sexual desire and shapeless creative ambition. Regular moments of comedy erupt, especially when Lili joins Minna en route to Italy to visit John Berger’s mistress (apparently an acquaintance of Minna’s mother), where various mid-trip lunch options are rejected as bourgeois until Minna alights on a suitably authentic workers’ restaurant, only to balk at what’s on the menu. Yet there’s steel, too, in De Kretser’s portrait of the chilly welcome Lili receives having arrived into the bosom of the western culture that has defined her intellectual interests.

When Lili’s section ends in a moment of collective rapture at the election of François Mitterrand’s socialist party, there’s an immediate shift in tone for the reader, who then turns the book 180 degrees to begin the plottier, more urgent thread set in Lyle’s Australia. Here there are hoverboards, yes, but three-figure-factor sun cream is the norm, much of Sydney is underwater and Islamic worship is banned as a terrorist activity under a suite of laws targeting minorities.

As a civil servant who is also a migrant, Lyle recognises that he’s a hair’s breadth from falling foul of the authoritarian powers he helps enforce. When he speaks of a wind that “cuts as if it’s factory-fresh from Gillette”, it’s a mark of De Kretser’s cleverness just how psychologically acute the line feels, almost as if Lyle is trying too hard to signal his buy-in in order to pass without attracting suspicion.

The plot turns on cranked-up domestic strife, as Lyle’s go-getting wife sets out to exploit recent euthanasia legislation to kill off his mother and liquidate her assets to move to a new area better suited to the circles they aspire to. There’s an affinity here with the type of story found in George Saunders’s Tenth of December, whose speakers unwittingly reveal the disturbing norms they have assimilated without question. Much of the energy comes from the way De Kretser lets us piece together the precise nature of her climate-ravaged hellscape, as when Lyle speaks casually of prepping his cattle prod before walking to his car at night.

De Kretser’s previous novel, 2018’s The Life to Come, also comprised discrete segments, and as in that book, there’s a certain riddling quality here. While the doomy tendency of Lyle’s segment all but snuffs out the heady sense of possibility captured in Lili’s thread, the book’s overriding sense of anger and alarm also mingles with satirical glee. Even if she obviously has the apocalyptic drift of the present in sight, De Kretser passes on to the reader the inescapable feeling that she’s also having fun, in this engaging amalgam of lament and warning shot.



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