Monday 19 August 2019

My Name is Monster: A feminist upending of 'Robinson Crusoe' in a post-apocalyptic world

Fiction: My Name is Monster

Katie Hale Canongate, hardback, 320 pages, €18.20

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale
My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

Joanne Hayden

Inspired by Robinson Crusoe - which turned 300 years old earlier this year - Katie Hale's debut novel opens with a woman washed up on a Scottish beach. Like Daniel Defoe's protagonist, the woman - called Monster - struggles to survive in the face of loneliness, hunger, wild animals and other more shadowy threats. Weapons carrying "the Sickness" have obliterated humanity. Monster waited out the apocalypse in an Arctic seed vault and as far as she's concerned, she's the only one left alive.

For obvious reasons - the behaviour of the current US president; the stark realities outlined in the latest UN biodiversity report - dystopian fiction is coming thick and fast these days. There have also been outstanding contributions to the genre - Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy among them - over recent years. In order to really make an impact therefore, writers need to bring something new to their dystopias.

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In certain ways, Hale does this. Her novel is divided into two parts, the first of which is Monster's story. After the beach, and following much arduous trekking, she bases herself in a farmhouse on the outskirts of an unnamed city. Echoing the relentlessness of Crusoe's plight, this first person, present-tense narrative reflects the tedium as well as the difficulties of her existence. Most shops and houses were looted in the run up to "the Last Fall" but she regularly leaves her new home to trawl through the remnants of urban life in search of supplies.

In flashbacks to her childhood, a picture emerges of an avoidant, occasionally violent misfit obsessed with machines. Growing up, Monster had few friends and never understood the need for touch or other people's bodies.

"It was not desire that I was free from," she says, "but caring."

Hale could be much clearer about the psychological make-up of Monster, who often reads like a character with a developmental disorder, yet says she "taught" herself how to be a monster. Also inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the novel is partly about power and the impact of conditioning, but though she is sidelined and rejected as a child, Monster is a self-styled outsider; she doesn't want to belong.

Like Victor Frankenstein, she has a scientific mind. She's fascinated by bones and appreciates the "honesty of objects" but linguistically as well as in other ways, sometimes she just doesn't add up.

From Cumbria in England, Hale is also a poet and along with flat, factual descriptions, Monster uses richer language - metaphors and images that are not always in keeping with her character. She describes seasons "bleeding into each other like an abstract painting" yet doesn't seem like someone who would even register abstract paintings. The point may be that she contains untapped multitudes, but references like this make her more unfathomable rather than more complex.

One thing is evident: she is less misanthropic than she thought she was. It's an extremely unpeopled novel and Monster's loneliness is acute until - almost 120 pages in - scavenging in the city, she finds a girl who is feral, apparently wordless and on the cusp of puberty. She takes the girl back to the farm, gives her the name Monster and becomes Mother.

The transference of the name is symbolic on multiple levels; it seems strange, yet holds a mirror up to the proprietorial nature of parenting. This new or second Monster is, Mother says, "like a bare patch of earth, ready for me to map her new landscape on to".

It's parenting as colonialism and - along with how subtly Hale hints at human life beyond the duo - one of the best and freshest aspects of the novel.

Mother is controlling and horrified by the girl's awakening sexuality but the second half of the book is narrated by the girl, who won't be shamed; she has her own history and makes her own discoveries and decisions.

Her voice is a welcome counterbalance in the novel but doesn't cast much fresh light on Mother. And while Hale's feminist upending of the Crusoe story has plenty of thematic meatiness, because Mother has been so antisocial, because - before the Last Fall - she formed no lasting relationships, the effect of the apocalypse is weakened. She didn't love what has been lost enough and so the destruction of the world doesn't seem as tragic as it should.

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