Sri Lankan-born Michelle de Kretser’s family emigrated to Australia when she was 14, and themes of exile, migration and identity appear frequently in her fiction. Her award-winning 2012 novel, Travel Matterscrosses the experiences of a Sri Lankan and an Australian, and eloquently demonstrates the fundamental opposition between traveling for pleasure and fleeing for one’s life.
scary monsters, her sixth novel, is another double narrative told from the perspective of two Asian immigrants, Lili and Lyle, who have settled in Australia. Like from Kretser, Lili’s family emigrated there when she was a teenager. One story takes place in 1980s France, where Lili is on a sabbatical, the other in the near future of Melbourne.
The reversible format of the novel, with different covers on each side, invites us to choose which story to read first and, in doing so, de Kretser asks what is more important: the past or the future? Both parts are preceded by the same quotes: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters” by Nietzsche and “How does it feel to be a problem? by WEB Du Bois.
I chose to read Lili’s story first, from the late 1980s in the south of France, hoping it would shed some light on Lyle’s story. Lili works as an assistant language teacher in Montpellier. She aspires to be a “daring and intelligent woman”, like Simone de Beauvoir, but lacks the self-confidence to assert herself. She told us very early “when my family emigrated, it was as if we had been put on our heads”. Lili befriends Minna, an aspiring artist, and her English boyfriend Nick, but is intimidated by their easy confidence, observing: “some people had stories and some had lives”.
During Lili’s year in Montpellier, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser murders his wife, while in England the Yorkshire Ripper terrorizes women and they march for Reclaim the Night. Lili dazedly watches French police crowd North Africans “formally dressed in ironed trousers and mismatched jackets” into pick-up trucks. She feels threatened by her creepy neighbor Rinaldi, who speaks “in affirmations” and offers unwanted attention. The economy of de Kretser’s descriptions is impressive. Lili’s loneliness can be summed up in one sentence: “In bed at night, I would hold hands to comfort myself while falling asleep.”
The casual racism and treatment of migrants Lili witnesses in France serve as a precursor to de Kretser’s terrifying vision of a surveillance state in Australia that holds asylum seekers “on an offshore island forever.” In this part of the novel, de Kretser gives free rein to his creepy monsters, while his evocative descriptions are replaced by cold exposition.
Lyle and his wife Chanel live in Melbourne with their two children, Sydney and Mel. As Lyle observes, “People like us will never be invisible, so we have to make a tremendous effort to fit in.” Islam is banned and immigrants are considered suspect and risk being repatriated if they fail to assimilate. Yet Lyle also works in the government department tasked with monitoring and expelling anyone who makes a misstep.
De Kretser clearly likes to demonstrate how close we are to this dystopian future where “government hateful mouthpieces” dominate the media and “climate non-politics” has already taken its toll. What remains in mind, however, are the connections she makes between the prejudices of the past and a future society devoid of values or compassion.
scary monsters by Michelle de Kretser, Allen and Unwin €14.99 320 pages
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