In Catherine Menon’s Fragile Monsters, we experience living through a micro-scale of a family epic that spans through generations—from the 1920s to the present. The narrative revolves around two main characters, Mary and Durga. The former is the grandmother, who is the storyteller and story-keeper of the family. The latter is the granddaughter who is now an adult; who questions the believability of Mary’s memory and version of their family history.
The story unfolds into a series of “tussles” between Mary and Durga, and the various facets of these two women are revealed as buried truths gradually unearth. Personally, I feel that Mary’s unreliable narrative of past memories is her way of ameliorating the pain that has been a constant companion in her life, having lived through both the Japanese Occupation and Malayan Emergency. Yet reading Durga’s exasperation at these half-truths that threaten to undo her existence made me want to take her side in this struggle.
One interesting thing to note is the naming of the characters. The grandmother, Mary, has a westernised name—even her own daughter was named Francesca. In contrast, Durga was named after one of the principal Hindu deities—the goddess of war, strength, and protection, worshipped as a protective mother goddess who unleashes her divine wrath against the wicked to empower creation. In a way, Mary’s Durga is a new shoot in a fractured family tree that will create new branches—not just for Durga, but also for Mary.
This is a novel that requires proper attention and time set aside for it. From one reader to another—best read in one sitting.