Menon alternates Durga’s tale with Mary’s arguably more compelling history, starting with her tough 1920s childhood. As the traumas mount up we see how they have forged Durga’s formidable grandmother, who lies as a form of control. This is a book saturated with the sensations of southeast Asia; where, in Menon’s pungent turns of phrase, you feel as though you could “grab the air in two hands and wring it out”; where guilt can be “squatting in the room . . . stringy as spit”, and where tiger princes and jungle spirits lurk amid a painful colonial past.
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.
It helps that Menon’s are more self-aware than Doshi’s: they know they are “monsters” and dislike themselves for it, inciting a kind of sympathy. Menon also provides much more context for the women’s actions, which makes them easier to understand; perhaps this is another symptom of the author’s mathematical mind. Yet Menon’s greatest strength can be her biggest weakness: towards the end the novel begins to feel too formulaic and the shock that could have come with Mary’s final revelation is ruined slightly because we have been expecting it for so long.