Monday, 22 February 2021

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon


Reviewer:
Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait. Each strand different, weaving its own."

Fragile Monsters tells the often parallel stories of a grandmother and granddaughter, growing up either side of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the Emergency that followed, as the British colony of Malaya struggled to become independent Malaysia.

Durga is a lecturer in mathematics who has recently come back to Malaysia from Canada following an unhappy end to a love affair. She pays a dutiful visit to her Ammuma’s (grandmother’s) home for Diwali. But when an accident with cheap market-bought Diwali fireworks lands Ammuma in hospital, Durga is forced to confront ghosts from both of their pasts.

Durga was brought up by Ammuma after her mother died when she was a baby – or at least that’s what she’s always believed. But then why has she found an obviously much more recent notebook with her mother’s name and address written in a childish hand?

And then there is Tom, now a doctor in the same hospital, with whom Durga shares the guilt of an accident which killed one of their schoolfriends.

The book is laced through with dry-as-bone humour that underlines the prickly relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. (“Granddaughters, she thinks, should stay where they’ve been put.”)

Equally, the mastery of language that was displayed in Menon’s short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, is used here to evoke the atmosphere of Malaysia – from the sticky heat to the class-and-race ridden society that is the legacy of British efforts to divide and rule.

Menon herself is a mathematician, and the text is sprinkled, too, with mathematical metaphors that sent me right back to my student days.

“We leave this as an inference for the reader,’ a mathematician will happily write. Too trustful, these mathematicians. Too trustful by half” she writes - a joke perhaps perhaps only someone who has sat through First Year Maths lectures will fully appreciate. 

A complex and tender story that manages to blend maths with folk legend, and complicated human relationships with scars of war and colonialism.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Ponti by Sharlene Teo, Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera, Subjunctive Moods by Catherine Menon (writing as CG Menon)

Avoid If You Dislike: Overlapping timelines

Perfect Accompaniment:
Rendang curry and tea

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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