FRAGILE MONSTERS BY CATHERINE MENON | BOOK REVIEW
TITLE : Fragile Monsters
AUTHOR : Catherine Menon
GENRE : General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
FR RATING : ⭐⭐⭐(3 Stars)
DATE OF PUBLISHING : 07 January 2021
DISCLAIMER : Thank you, Netgalley, Penguin General UK – Fig Tree, Hamish Hamilton, Viking, Penguin Life, and Penguin Business for providing me with an ARC of this book. I am leaving this review voluntarily.
Fragile Monsters from Catherine Menon is a family saga spanning from the 1920s to the present, with rural Malaysia serving as a backdrop to the mysteries and secrets that are unraveled. We get the story from two perspectives, one from Durga, a maths Professor at Kuala Lumpur University, and one from Mary, Durga’s fierce and sharp-tongued grandmother. Durga is visiting her grandmother and wants nothing more than to spend the days peacefully and leave the house that’s filled with painful memories. Her plans go awry when during Diwali celebrations, Mary is met with a firecracker burn incident. This leads to Durga spending more time with her grandmother and the two trying to unlock secrets from the past that haunts them to this day.
The story is a mix of mystery and suspense surrounding the two women who are equally headstrong and fierce. The two have gone through lots of terrible losses that affect their lives moving forward. The trauma is still fresh, making appearances in their present lives and creating waves. The more Durga searches for the truth of the incidents and the history of her family, the more she gets sucked into stories and myths that make no sense. There is no clarity and closure for any of them. We make the journeys through the past with our characters, feeling like we are drowning in all the questions. The story keeps us on our toes and takes us on a wild ride through Kerala to Malaysia. Can Durga separate the fictions of her childhood from the truth?? Is there any truth to be found in her grandmother’s grand tales?
I was intrigued by the synopsis, and the Malaysian setting is not one I have read before. So I was fascinated to read it. I was excited to read the story and see how it progressed. There were moments in the book that showed promise, but some of the storylines did not work out in the way I expected it. I found their individual stories to be quite captivating. The atmospheric setting gave me gothic vibes with the dark and dreary abandoned home, the crocodile-infested river flowing next to the house, night settings, mysterious nun, and the asylum abandoned after the fire. I loved reading about the historical aspects and how Malaysia was affected after the Second World war and the Emergency period. I wasn’t aware of the history, and I am glad I got to see that. The historical and geographical aspects and how people coped during this time were interesting to see. I loved the exploration of the coping mechanism the two women used to get through the traumatic events of their life. Mary used stories and myths while Durga went after studies and her career to drown her trauma. The stories within stories, unreliable narrators, and layers of mystery, trauma, and cover-ups, all make this story packed with intrigue, emotion, and sadness. There was a foreboding of everything going to collapse, and as a reader, you could see the helplessness of the characters.
The plot progressed by taking us on two different journeys, which finally converge and come together in the end. I found the lack of clarity and lack of answers to certain questions disconcerting. It was unsatisfying to not see the culmination or closure of some storylines. I didn’t really understand what was fiction, and what was the truth. However, I believe that was the intent, and it is open to interpretation. Am I happy with it? No. I guess, it’s a personal preference, and in some stories, I like that, and in some, I don’t. The pacing was not uniform throughout, some portions were faster, and others were progressing fairly slowly.
The Malayali and Kerala aspects were minor, but I was still excited to see someone from South India. Even the Tamil Rep was small, but I found myself looking for things I could relate to in the story. Mary felt familiar, and her mannerisms did remind me of a lot of grandmothers and mothers back in Kerala. For somebody outside of the culture, her behavior might seem aggressive and quite harsh, but the intent is never ill, and the delivery is often not one the western audience might be used to. Some of the older generations of grandparents and parents take the idea of tough love to a whole new level. So it wasn’t surprising to see certain traits be prominent in Mary’s character. Durga is very much confident and secure in her professional identity. But when it comes to personal identity, she struggles with her past. The trauma and the lack of her mother’s presence in her life as she grew up, all weigh her down affecting her present. As far as characters go, I didn’t think any of them were likable, and almost all of them were morally gray. I wish I could understand the motivations of these characters fully, and I didn’t. That disappointed me. Again, it is a personal preference and with each story, it differs. If the plot was tightened a little bit and the loose ends were tied, I would have been Ok with the lack of understanding when it comes to the characters. But for me, my enjoyment depended on finding the answers that would resolve the conflicts introduced in the story.
Overall, the complexities of relationships, betrayal, and love play a huge role in the narrative. The need for secrets to be buried is at the forefront of both perspectives. The ghosts of the past that haunt the characters pave the path for the progression of the story. It was interesting to see how their mental health was affected by the secrets they held dear. Guilt and love in equal measure pour from them and makes the readers intrigued to peel back the layers of these complex relationships and cultural constraints. The story talks about leaving the past behind where it belongs and moving forward to pull oneself out of festering secrets. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in historical fiction or literary fiction that focuses on familial relationships and it’s complexities. I gave the book 3 stars and I believe it’s a wonderful story from a debut writer. I will be interested in reading anything this author will be writing.
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A SPELLBINDING DEBUT NOVEL SET BETWEEN WW2 AND CONTEMPORARY MALAYSIA
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?
In her stunning debut novel Catherine Menon traces one family’s story from 1920 to the present, unravelling a thrilling tale of love, betrayal and redemption against the backdrop of natural disasters and fallen empires. Written in vivid technicolour, with an electric daughter-grandmother relationship at its heart, Fragile Monsters explores what happens when secrets fester through the generations.
As they will learn, in a place ravaged by floods, it is only a matter of time before the bones of the past emerge.
Source : Goodreads
As a Malaysian whose ancestors were from Kerala, this book just jolted so many childhood memories and stories I’ve heard from my father and maternal grandmother. My paternal grandparents were from Kerala, and made their way to Malaya (through Burma) in the 1920s-30s. My maternal grandparents were born in Malaya but lived through the Japanese occupation; my grandmother just turned 85 and has a memory as sharp as a knife, so I do ask her from time to time about her experiences.
An interesting book and I think if my dad read it he’d be very intrigued too!
I am glad you commented. I am from Kerala and there were things that were interesting to me. You should definitely try this one or you can gift it to your father as well. I am sure he will have insightful things to add to it.
Yes, I’ve mentioned this book to my aunt who is an avid reader and spent a chunk of her time in India as well. Also- if you’re keen to learn more about the mention of the “Emergency” the book speaks of- look the Malayan Emergency.
The Japanese occupation is another time that’s a good but very painful area to read up on. Singapore used to be a part of Malaysia (1963-1965), and they have a very painful history with regards to this- mainly the “Sook Ching” (Punggol, Changi, Sentosa). It is a very very awful thing to digest so a bit of caution when looking to read the texts.
My Kerala- born grandmother passed in Feb 1957 (6 months pre independent) and my grandad passed in 1977 (few years before I was born) so I never got the chance to ask him about his stories either.
I’ll be checking them out!! Thank you so much for the info Shar. It was really helpful.❤️