Scary Monsters | Michelle de Kretser #AWWfiction

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?

Back cover blurb.

A book with two beginnings (and two ends). Which one should I read first? How does one decide? Or is it completely random? In conversation with Michelle de Kretser for a Readings online book event a couple of weeks ago, Emily Bitto said that “to read one is to flip the other on it’s head“.

I decided to start with Lyle. The future.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the day Alan died.

If you decide to read Scary Monsters, you will come to understand how much randomness actually plays a part in this choice. When I picked up my proof copy (sans the two striking covers that appear on the real deal), I read all the supporting comments on both covers first. One side had a quote by Kerryn Goldsworthy, the other side quotes by both A.S. Byatt and Hilary Mantel. I then opened the book and read Lili’s opening line. I flipped it over and read Lyle’s opening line and decided that was where I was going to start.

Lyle’s opening sentence felt a little less convoluted than Lili’s. I wasn’t in the mood for Lili and her travel stories and her name dropping. Lyle and his grief story was always going to resonate more given my fascination for stories about death and loss. The choice was as simple and as complicated as that.

Lili’s opening line was:

That was the year we went to Sardinia to meet John Berger’s mistress.

Did it matter?

It’s very hard to say, except that the three people I know who started with Lyle have enjoyed the book a whole lot more than the one person I know who started with Lili. So maybe it does matter?

Lyle: A dear friend who has read and loved all of de Kretser’s books and a regular customer who was new to de Kretser’s writing. And me. And Kim @ReadingMatters makes 4!

Lili: Lisa @ANZ Lit Lovers

Emily Bitto and Michelle de Kretser’s conversation began with Lili – the “complex and contradictory” Lili. Bitto said she was drawn in by the imminent danger that seemed to surround Lili (the Yorkshire Ripper, the dark stairwell in her apartment block, the creepy neighbour downstairs) and MdK agreed that she thought that Lili was a protagonist courting danger. She went on to describe Lyle as someone who was “trying to shake off his past“, although as his opening line shows, this was hard to do. Slipping back into memories occurs throughout his 153 pages.

Memory, and the stories we tell about our pasts to remodel our future selves, seemed to be a key factor in both stories.

Immigration breaks people…Immigrants are people with missing pieces.

Through Lyle, de Kretser describes a Melbourne that looks and feels and sounds like the early days of George Orwell’s 1984. It also feels like it is just five minutes in the future – maybe ten. The scary monsters, in particular, are racism, government control, debt and ageism.

I understood that the past was no longer a reliable guide to the future…Surely the past only reveals itself fully when we look back at it from now?

Anti-Muslim sentiment is rife, social media use is heavily policed and toeing the party line is the only safe thing to do. No-go topics are climate change and history. Immigration status can be revoked at any time. Cultivating the right image, the right look, is an imperative if you want to get ahead. And getting old is to be avoided at all costs.

Don’t look back. It’s not the Australian way. That’s the problem with Aboriginal people – they’re a living reminder of the past. Who feels comfortable facing up to old mistakes?

Lyle’s world is a pretty bleak world and you wonder why anyone would aspire to leave their own country for this one.

Lili’s story was 152 pages long.

Lili’s world is 1981 France. She is an Australian travelling the world and studying during her university years. Seven years previous, her family had emigrated from Asia to Australia, she finds her dark skin attracts (unwanted) attention wherever she goes. France is a hotbed of radical politics and ethnic groups. Camus’ L’Étranger is on everyone lips.

Lili is attracted to Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Sexy, Modern Woman’ and wants to be ‘Bold, Intelligent Woman’ to boot. She thinks she might like to write a novel one day – a book narrated in the first person by a woman living in a city with a serial killer on the loose…’it was against logic for a first-person narrator to die‘.

Lili’s scary monsters were racism, sexism, poverty, war, loneliness and self-doubt. With references to Nazi Germany, anti-semitism, the class struggle, war in Algeria “everything we needed to know about Algeria could be found in Camus“, Spanish Civil War, and the Armenian genocide “why some people had history and other people had lives“, danger really was everywhere.

But the whole way through Lili’s story, I’m searching and waiting for the connection to Lyle’s story. As far as I could see, there wasn’t one. MdK confirmed this was the case. She wanted the reader to be unsettled, for their reading experience to be upended, to not know what was going on. For her it reflected the immigrant reality of knowing one story that doesn’t help you understand the new one at all. She wanted to write a “broken book” that held “glimmers or echoes rather than connections“.

Two different opening lines, two different stories and two different endings.

**Spoiler alert** If you’re planning on reading this story, DO NOT read the next paragraph.

One story finished with an act of euthanasia and one finished with a miscarriage. What are we meant to make of this? Are we being asked to consider is it better (or worse) to have lived a whole life and to choose how and when you die, even under pressure to do so, or to never have lived at all? To not have the choice about whether you are even born or not? Unfortunately we could not discuss this in depth during the online conversation for the sake of those who had not finished reading the book. MdK simply threw out a provocation about whose stories get privileged.

But I’d love to know what you think?

A final note on the ‘gimmicky’ nature of the book. MdK explained that yes she had been inspired by Ali Smith’s book, How To Be Both, but that it was looking up the meaning of the word gimmick that convinced her to go with it. One of the first definitions she found referred to a gimmick as being something with uncertain or little intrinsic value. For her, this reflected perfectly the immigrant experience of not being seen as real Australians.



The state is the coldest of all cold monsters


How does it feel to be a problem?

W.E.B. Du Bois
Title: Scary Monsters
Author: Michelle de Kretser
ISBN: 9781761065101
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Published: October 2021
Format: Trade Paperback
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

18 thoughts on “Scary Monsters | Michelle de Kretser #AWWfiction

  1. I have only skimmed your review as I have finished the book and want to put my own thoughts down without being influenced by others. It’s definitely a book of two halves and I can’t see how they are connected at all. I read the future story first and LOVED it. I must have been in the mood for some satire. She really skews so many of the things that bug me about Australia since repatriating. The second story felt like an offshoot of Questions of Travel. I’m not sure it resonated with me very much. It was an easy enough read but I’m glad I didn’t start with that story first 🤷🏻‍♀️


  2. Well, you know what I think!
    But I was interested to see what you’ve reported from the conversation about it: she seems to have repeated much of what she said in some interview that I read. I guess that happens when authors have to promote a book in multiple situations.


    1. Yes, I observed that with the Kate Grenville interviews I watched on YouTube for my recent post about her book. They covered much of the same ground as her acknowledgements at the end of the book and her on website.


      1. It’s so disappointing, isn’t it? But, on the other side of it, I know how time consuming it is to listen to and read all the available coverage of an authors’ work so that you don’t repeat common questions yourself. Still..unfortunate.


        1. I guess there are only so many insights to be had into the writing/ research process for each book. Repetition is bound to happen, but if watch or read enough of them, it does start to feel rather like a script.


  3. De Kretser obviously wrote two books that spoke to each and thought the best way to get us to read both was to publish them back to back. I wonder what choice will be/has been made for the audio version. I’ll pick this up soon (quickest thing might be to give it to Milly for xmas) and see for myself whether it was worth doing.


    1. I hadn’t thought about the audio version & who gets to make the choice about which story to put first. Good question!
      I’ve only read MdK’s shorter pieces before (a novella & essays) so cannot comment on how typical this is re her writing style. I enjoyed it but wasn’t wowed by it. In fact I probably got more out of the reviewing/researching process than the actual read.


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