Catherine Menon’s debut novel, Fragile Monsters, is a beautifully written story of one Indian Malaysian family’s history, entwined with secrets and hidden heartbreak, told through the fractious relationship of Durga and her Ammuma, her grandmother Mary. When Durga, a mathematics lecturer returns home to rural Pahang after ten years away in Canada and in Kuala Lumpur, to spend Diwali with Mary, the pair are forced to untangle the mystery of their past. “Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait,” Durga says.
Each strand different, weaving its own pattern and ducking out of sight just when you’re following it. Like category theory, in a way. Like families. They don’t stay put either.
The narrative alternates between Durga and Mary’s perspectives, spanning from the 1920s to the present, unlocking and revealing memories suppressed by trauma and shame. Durga is precise, seeing life through mathematical structures like category theory while Mary relies on stories and myths to make sense of the complexity of life. In the damp humidity of Malaysia, Durga searches for answers to questions Mary would much rather forget, disturbing questions such as those relating to Durga’s mother who was said to have died after childbirth and the events that unfolded during the Japanese occupation of Malaya and the subsequent Malayan Emergency. Durga is left unsettled:
Everything’s melting together, blurred as though it’s behind a pane of broken glass. I’m cold, cramped, my fingers clenched tight over a faded envelope and toys scattered in my lap. Ghosts everywhere I look. Ghosts everywhere I don’t.
Fragile Monsters is a story of homecoming which illustrates the tension of returning to a past which remains painfully present. Mary slowly reveals the fear and violence experienced by their relatives during the Japanese occupation, stories that had been too painful to recount. While Durga begins to learn more about these generational tragedies, she has her own personal tragedy to deal with. What really happened to her childhood friend Peony? The Peony who won’t stop following her no matter how far away she goes.
At times it is as if the secrets that lie at the heart of the novel are its main protagonists. Mary is irritable and Durga takes out her frustrations on the maid Karthika who she treats badly despite having grown up with her. There are run-ins with romance as Durga speaks of an on-off again relationship back in Kuala Lumpur where she is working, and she is reunited with Tom who she had pined over in her youth. Neither of these relationships is developed in any serious way or reveal much about Durga’s desires or feelings. Instead, Menon focuses more on Durga’s surroundings: her emotional frustrations and intensity are reflected in nature through descriptions of threatening thunder and impending rain. In contrast to the inhibited romantic relationships, the complicated familial love Mary has for her brother Anil is far more alluring as Menon, herself of Malaysian heritage, explores the cultural attitudes and political climate of early 20th century Malaya through the brother-sister relationship.
Menon’s lucid prose brings the setting of the novel to the fore, her thick description of the oppressive heat and unrelenting rain contrasts the ungovernable enveloping nature with the careful structure of the family home, filled with locked doors and secret boxes. This constant sense of forebody is peppered by comforting references to pandan cakes and rendang, traditional dishes served in a Malaysian home. The rich atmospheric description is paired with sobering dialogue in the form of sharp comments, specifically from Mary who is constantly scolding Durga:
“Wanting to wander off alone in the corridors with a boy? Aiyoh, Durga,” she says, sucking disapproval through her teeth.
The generational differences between grandmother and granddaughter are echoed in Mary’s disapproving comments which are often delivered in “Manglish”, a mix of English, Malay, Hokkien and Tamil representative of the vibrant multiculturalism of Malaysia. Menon utilizes the dual prose narrative to go back to the 1920s to explore how Mary’s Indian mother and British father moved from India to settle in Malaysia and how the subsequent generations have nurtured their cultural heritage but have also adopted new customs and traditions. Menon’s tracing of the past highlights how central events such as the Malayan Emergency and Japanese occupation were in shaping the family and wider society. The exploration of historical events is one of the most striking features of Fragile Monsters, shedding light on events that are likely to be unfamiliar to many of its readers.
Fragile Monsters is a cleverly-crafted family saga which explores themes of truth, belonging and shame across multiple generations. Menon’s ability to generate such a charged atmosphere through her choice of language brings the prose to life. The novel will undoubtedly appeal to readers of the Malaysian diaspora who yearn for the comforts of home—the text is infused with references to Milo and Maggi—as well as to those interested in the region more broadly.
Menon’s is a welcome addition to literature set in Malaysia. Hearing from such voices provides a refreshing new perspective on a once strikingly colonial literature. The inclusion of the Japanese occupation of Malaya and the Malayn Emergency makes powerful reading for a younger generation who may have only heard snippets of stories, just as Durga did, without knowing the extent to which communities suffered. Although Fragile Monsters is plagued with secrets, it is through honesty and acceptance that Durga and Mary are able to reconcile their truths.
Olivia Porter is a PhD candidate at King's College London. Her research focuses on Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar.