I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays, cultivating the image, as I am, of a sensible PhD student. Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye. Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book. The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.
From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately. The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine. Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’. When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John. John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.
Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above. The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of. At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’. There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led. When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.
Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’. With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach. She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.
The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight. But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet. Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.
Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic. She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic. The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon. Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er). I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.