Fragile Monsters, the debut novel from short-story writer Catherine Menon, begins with a family reckoning and a house fire. Durga, a thirtysomething maths lecturer, has recently moved from Ontario, where she has lived since she was an undergraduate, to Kuala Lumpur. Durga grew up in Malaysia but her new life is lonely. The only surviving member of her immediate family is her ammuma – her mother’s mother, Mary. At Diwali, Durga drives north to visit Mary, bringing with her a bag full of bootleg fireworks.
Mary and Durga are devoted to one another, though their devotion manifests in constant antagonism. Durga endures streams of criticism from Mary: “Too Canadian”; “Durga, always you don’t think”. Meanwhile, Durga sifts through her grandmother’s possessions without permission while she is out of the house. After the fire she finds a notebook, photographs and a child’s lopped-off plait, and out of these fragments, she begins to piece together the story of her ancestry.
At the beginning of the 20th century in colonial Thrissur in Kerala, India, Mary’s mother, Radhika, meets her Mancunian father, Stephen. The marriage will not be a success. Soon after the wedding a rift appears, prompting the couple to relocate to Malaya “in a welter of tearful apologies and unspoken resentments”. Stephen’s engineering firm places him outside Kuala Lipis, then the colonial capital of Pahang. This is where Mary grows up, where she meets her husband, Rajan, and raises her daughter, Francesca, and where she will remain through war, occupations, floods and the long struggle towards independence, which manifests, in Mary’s civilian life, as “10 years of food shortages, gunfights and curfews”.
Mary is a storyteller. Her tales are full of tiger princes, rakshasas, ghosts and women drowned in wells. Her accounts of Francesca, who died aged 16 while in labour with Durga, have never quite added up. Durga’s stories tend towards more mathematical concerns: she likes things to be consistent and rational. But she has her own ghost – a childhood friend, Peony, who drowned as a teenager in mysterious circumstances. The plait she discovers in her grandmother’s house could belong to one of several missing bodies.
Menon’s skill with the short story is evident in Fragile Monsters, whose several plotlines running between 1922 and 1985 are braided together in a bravura construction. Intricately connected narrative digressions act as tributaries to the family story, giving flesh to minor characters or riffing on political events. It’s clever, satisfying, and often playful. It’s also an especially well-tailored form for a story set in Pahang over the course of the 20th century, where wars, migrations and occupations succeed, and converge on, one another: the novel’s multiple strands accommodate different histories, voices and perspectives.
Mary’s neighbours are British nuns, Japanese soldiers, Malay guerrilla fighters. Her friends and family have come from different parts of China and India for work – her husband, Rajan, whose father is a doctor from India, marches as an Indian nationalist with Tamils, Malayalis (members of an ethnolinguistic group from Kerala), Sikhs and Gujaratis, “nine-tenths of whom he can’t understand”, for the independence of “a country he’s never even seen”. Mary’s own voice is distinctively complex and changes through the book. As a girl she swears in Malay, English and Malayali. As a young woman she composes “buttoned-up” English letters to her parents. Growing older, it becomes “an effort to contort her tongue back to English grammar”: she has “slipped into rubber-estate talk, as she calls it”. At the end of life “her words are stripped down, all the ornaments of Malay and Tamil withered into cut-glass vowels”.
Fragile Monsters doesn’t bend its history or its characters to tidy conclusions. Durga is hyper-aware of how people assess one another across many vectors of difference. She watches Mary’s doctor evaluate her age (mid-30s) and profession (academic) against her marital status (single). She is conscious of her own condescension to the family maid, Karthika. She takes note of the Malay gaze: “Skin like a fish, they say here about Europeans.” Speaking on the telephone to her friend Sangeeta in Canada, Durga explains the history of British colonial atrocities and observes drily that “Sangeeta, from her wipe-clean couch in Ontario, passes judgment”.
Unlike her friend, Durga treats the historical oppressor with some sympathy and a gentle sense of humour. This doesn’t mean that her story excuses itself from the violent realities of the colonial periods, when Mary’s daily life is grounded in terror. During the Japanese wartime occupation, a bloody attack on Mary’s brother exposes the vulnerability of occupied bodies. Nor is this kept at a comfortable distance – Durga lives with its legacies. When Tom, a sexy, horrible white friend of hers, visits her at Mary’s house, he removes his shoes before crossing the threshold, but he doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that his lace-ups edge Durga’s shoes off the step and into a puddle. It’s a nice image, revealing Tom’s congenital belief in his place at the centre of things. But Fragile Monsters is the story of Durga and her grandmother. “It’s taken Mary 70 years of listening to finally get her say, and now she’s going to clear things up.”
Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body is published by Fitzcarraldo. Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon is published by Viking (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.