February 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon
Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

Durga is a mathematician. Her method of being in the world is order, sequence and proof, or so she believes. When her lover in Canada chooses his wife over her, she accepts an academic position in Kuala Lumpur and after a decade away is back in her home country. The novel, spanning three generations, takes place in Pahang, about three hours’ drive from KL, where Durga’s grandmother Mary still lives.

The child of a mother from Gujarat, India, and an English father brought out to Malaya for colonial service, Mary lives in a massive, decaying house. The house, built by her father, was his obsession, one way to make a fragile human claim in the relentless jungle, a compound safe from the silent and often deadly reach of the nearby river. The novel begins in 1985, when Durga arrives to celebrate Diwali with her grandmother. Mary lives in a few rooms of the house, her only help an insolent servant girl who claims to be related. They are frequently visited by a handsome young doctor, Tom, a friend from Durga’s childhood. The young Durga had been in love with Tom, as had her best friend, Peony. But Peony died when they were all 15 and addicted to playing the thrilling and dangerous games of adolescence.

Over a few days in Pahang, Durga’s order, sequences and proofs dissolve as easily as everything else into the humid air, as half-known stories, odd inheritances and unshakeable memories merge into a flickering tactile surface. She finds photographs, shrines, notes. Puzzles coincide long enough to form possibilities. One photograph suggests that her mother, who was 16 when she died giving birth to Durga in 1955, might still be alive. No one ever told Durga who her father might be, and she has never bothered to enquire. Her grandmother, the woman who raised her, is a circuit of love and bitterness. She enjoys lying. Mary doesn’t add up. Nothing adds up in Pahang.

Every student is familiar with the details of World War Two in Europe and the devastation in everyday lives. But what do we know about that same war in the Asian states that were occupied by Japan? We know about soldiers as prisoners of the Japanese, but what imaginative literature is there that speaks for the privations and courage of the population of those states? Or what came later, when the British wouldn’t leave? From 1948 to 1960, there was guerrilla war in Malaya. The residents – Chinese, Indian, indigenous Malays and the remaining British – knew it as The Emergency. In our popular culture we don’t see these lives, which were just as valuable, just as permanently broken as any of those from Europe.

Fragile Monsters (Viking), telling these tales, splicing them with spirits, demons and magic, setting them in precarious psychological and physical territory, speaks to things past that remain entirely present. Catherine Menon, a mathematician who lives in London, has written a novel as strange and as beautiful as the fireworks she has Durga release for Diwali. Durga’s fireworks, particularly an uncontrollable Catherine wheel, almost burn her grandmother’s house down. Menon burns into the imagination with this spectacular debut.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly, February 2021
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In This Issue

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