Book #80

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Mary is a difficult grandmother for Durga to love. She is sharp-tongued and ferocious, with more demons than there are lines on her palms. When Durga visits her in rural Malaysia, she only wants to endure Mary, and the dark memories home brings, for as long as it takes to escape. 
But a reckoning is coming. Stuck together in in the rising heat, both women must untangle the truth from the myth of their family's past.What happened to Durga's mother after she gave birth? Why did so many of their family members disappear during the war? And who is to blame for the childhood tragedy that haunts her to this day?
As they will learn, in a place ravaged by floods, it is only a matter of time before the bones of the past emerge. 

There’s something ethereal about a homecoming, something which is probably different for each of us. It can be a joy to return to everything you love, or it can be something you simply have to suffer through until you can escape again. It can be a restoration of serene status quo, or it can be an entirely new whirlwind of emotion.

After ten years in Canada, Durga returns to Pahang to see her grandmother for Diwali. Durga and Mary are two entirely different women. Being of two separate generations, one a storyteller, one a mathematician, having experienced life in opposing ways, they see each other as exasperating, irascible, and far beyond hope. Neither are entirely likeable, but both are so vividly depicted that it’s impossible for a reader to do anything but stand by and defend them.

Menon displays a wonderful skill here in spanning the years. We see Durga return home to Pahang, see her describe the miseries and joys it holds, before being transported further into the past to explore Mary’s coming of age, and back again. What’s interesting here are the raw similarities between Durga and Mary at a young age, as though life had somehow replicated itself across the generations.

I particularly enjoyed the rich description of setting here, at times full of life and colour, bountiful and glorious, at others brimming with natural danger, with shadow and light, and with the unknown. Her pace was extraordinary as information was trickled to us slowly, all at the perfect moment, allowing for contemplation of what it all could mean, and why things might be the way they are.

Menon deals deeply with relationships here, with secrets and lies, and how these sometimes never leave us no matter how many years pass. Guilt, shame, and heartbreak all feature massively, and it made me feel strongly for these women. Love can be hidden sometimes, but it will always show itself in some way; in objects, in actions, and even in dark family secrets.

A remarkable debut full of myth and shadows; Menon has created something very distinctive here. It’s a wonderful read, overflowing with love, disappointment, and mystery.