- Fragile Monsters, by Catherine Menon. Viking, $32.99.
This extraordinarily assured debut blends myth, memory, history and family lore in a vivid account of 20th century Malaysia, as seen through the eyes of an Anglo-Indian family in provincial Pahang state.
Fragile Monsters takes places across two time periods - a single week in 1985 when Durga Panikkar returns home to celebrate the Diwali festival with her grandmother Mary; and Mary's lifespan, from the 1920s to 1985. While the contemporary strand of the novel is narrated by Durga, Mary is the star of the show. A feisty, no-nonsense survivor, Mary lives through the pre-WWII stirrings of Malaysia's independence movement, war-time Japanese occupation and the post-war Malayan Emergency.
Menon never allows history to overwhelm character though. Mary, her family, friends and community are sharply drawn throughout, as is their kampung or village, with its sodden ground, rowdy river Jelai and nearby jungle concealing healers, demons and Communist rebels.
Menon's twin narrative threads provide excellent pacing throughout. As Durga deals with the consequences of a disastrous Diwali night fire, the back story slowly builds to a surprising crescendo, revealing the truth about Durga's mother Francesca, her great-uncle Anil and Mary's imprisonment by the Japanese. (The denouement with Francesca is achingly well done too.)
The tension between Durga, a maths professor who has returned to Malaysia from Canada, and Mary, is a wonderful source of tension, comedy and heartache.
Menon also fabulously recreates Durga's ramshackle family home, and the lives of the relatives, servants and friends who pass through it over the decades.
As well as a near-perfect cast of characters, Fragile Monsters has its share of ghosts too. Durga's childhood friend Peony drowned in an accident in which Durga had a hand. Peony emerges as a motif for the fate of their generation.
Even relatively privileged young people like Durga, Peony and their friend Tom, who grew up in an independent Malaysia, are constrained by the weight of history from the colonial period and the harsh years of the Malayan Emergency.
Early in the novel, Durga complains that the childhood stories Mary told her were always a "glorious tangle" of folklore and memory.
It's an apt description for this work, with its hugely enjoyable blend of family lore, history, myth and superstition.
Believe the plaudits from Hilary Mantel and Colm Tibn on the cover of Fragile Monsters. There is so much to love in this novel: it is deeply felt but never sentimental, multi-faceted and a page-turner to boot.
- Christine Kearney is a writer and reviewer.