Scary Monsters

Michelle de Kretser

Scary Monsters
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Scary Monsters

Michelle de Kretser

‘When my family emigrated it felt as if we’d been stood on our heads.’

Michelle de Kretser’s electrifying take on scary monsters turns the novel upside down - just as migration has upended her characters' lives.

Lili’s family migrated to Australia from Asia when she was a teenager. Now, in the 1980s, she’s teaching in the south of France. She makes friends, observes the treatment handed out to North African immigrants and is creeped out by her downstairs neighbour. All the while, Lili is striving to be A Bold, Intelligent Woman like Simone de Beauvoir.

Lyle works for a sinister government department in near-future Australia. An Asian migrant, he fears repatriation and embraces ‘Australian values’. He’s also preoccupied by his ambitious wife, his wayward children and his strong-minded elderly mother. Islam has been banned in the country, the air is smoky from a Permanent Fire Zone, and one pandemic has already run its course.

Three scary monsters - racism, misogyny and ageism - roam through this mesmerising novel. Its reversible format enacts the disorientation that migrants experience when changing countries changes the story of their lives. With this suspenseful, funny and profound book, Michelle de Kretser has made something thrilling and new.

‘Which comes first, the future or the past?’


Michelle de Kretser has written an unusual book. Told in two narratives, the title is inspired by the David Bowie song, ‘Scary Monsters’: ‘Scary monsters, super creeps / Keep me running, running scared’. It is an apt link between the Thin White Duke’s lyrics and the themes within this uncommon and affecting novel. Lauded as an exploration of racism, misogyny and ageism, to my mind it also delves into the consequences of materialism.

Australians are never satisfied with what they’ve got. They – we – always want more, says Chanel, the wife of Lyle. Lyle works for a government department in future Australia. An Asian migrant, he fears repatriation and tries enormously to embrace ‘Australian values’. Islam has been banned in the country, and one pandemic has already occurred. This half of the novel reminded me of the HBO series Years and Years. It’s all familiar, feasible and suggests terrifying consequences.

The other half of the novel, one that can be reached by turning the book literally upside-down centres on Lili. Situated in the 1980s in France, Lili is an Australian migrant striving to become her own heroine. One cannot help but reflect that de Kretser herself had a similar trajectory to this character. As you may know, de Kretser was born in Sri Lanka but moved to Australia when she was 14. She was educated in both Melbourne and Paris.

Lili and Lyle’s stories share common themes. Their lives are disorientated by their own migrant experience, and it allows them to recognise racism and discord within other people. I felt quite obliterated by this novel. It caused me to consider all the creeps of the world; those scary monsters that lurk, unseen but with an insidious reach. De Kretser’s writing is beautiful – there is an ease to her laconic humour and storytelling, but she is coming for you. Make no mistake. This novel is about telling the truth, and from that, there is no escape.

Chris Gordon is the programming and events manager at Readings.

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