Michelle de Kretser is a formidably talented storyteller whose refined, intelligent tales tickle my mind but rarely enjoin me with her characters. In that respects, “Scary Monsters” reminded me of her other two lauded Miles Franklin Award winners, Questions of Travel and The Life to Come. Like those novels, Scary Monsters teems with intelligence, sparkling storytelling, and subtle connections, but offers protagonists portrayed a little too coolly for my liking.
The novel is a daring marriage of two parts, either of which can be read first. I began with the tale of Lili, an Australian teaching in southern France in the 1980s, a claustrophobic, philosophically imbued portrait of existential longing and Camus-inflected racism toward the local North African immigrants. The second narrative is even bolder, a near-future dystopian satire of an Asian immigrant family (headed by emotionally stunted, ultra cautious Lyle) in an Australia of institutionalized racism and assisted dying. The futuristic satire overflows with imaginative, savage ideas, eventually to the detriment (in my opinion) of any identification with Lyle and his striving family.
Overall, as has always been the case with this novelist’s books, Scary Monsters intrigues and impresses but leaves a halo of ideas well explored but chillingly uninvolving.