Book review: My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

(image courtesy Allen & Unwin Book Publishers)

With the human experience awash in apocalyptical tales, including a pandemic one that sits rather uncomfortably at the heart of modern reality, you could be forgiven for thinking that one of the end of the world story looks much like the other.

And while it’s true that all of them possess to some degree or another, themes of devastation, loss and searing existential grief, not to mention a great deal of death and destruction, whether by centimetres at a time or in one cataclysmic hit, My Name is Monster by Katie Hale evocatively illustrates that it is possible to tell an apocalyptic tale with some real originality and richly different humanity to it

In this particularly sobering tale of civilisation’s fall, a raging pandemic, which it is intimated may be human-made, and resultant geopolitical discord and war have combined to devastating effect, wiping humanity almost completely off the map, an end to the Anthropocene age that comes with both a bang and a whimper.

The sole survivor, or so she initially believes, is Monster, so-named by herself when she was a child, a reference to the way she was always apart from the mainstream, whether it was her family, her peer group or society as a whole.

Monster simply wasn’t like everyone else, and nor did she want to be, content, save for one equally ostracised friend who was happy to march to the beat of her idiosyncratic drum, to do her own thing, an lifelong imperative that impels her to take a job at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway where she can concentrate on the mechanical side of things with no regard to anyone save for Erik, the biologist and her only coworker.

“My mother used to bake gingerbread men for Christmas – little golden-brown figures that broke softly. Once, when I was young, she let me help, and I laid out my irregular shapes on the tray. I made her leave mine in the oven longest, so they baked hard and dark, and broke with a snap. I liked their unforgiving crunch, the way they attracted my mother’s frowns. I think of this and wonder if I meant to be the last. Then I remember there is no such thing as fate, because there is nobody in control.” (P. 42)

It is this move to the Vault that saves her for as the world falls apart of slowly spectacular and militarily brutal ways outside, she remains inside, happy to have sealed the world off, no matter what state it is in.

In a story that Hale tells with richly poetic but non-nonsense language that matches Monster’s state of mind, we meet Monster as she arrives in Scotland, having travelled by boat from Norway, hoping to find a way to survive the end of the world.

She is, as far as she knows, the last of humanity and as she travels back to her hometown, and then on to the place she eventually calls home, we are given atmospheric insight into the world Monster now inhabits and the one she once did, gathering as we do a picture of someone who is both at home in the apocalypse but still never entirely comfortable in her own idiosyncratically different skin.

There are challenges aplenty for her with the fall of her home country slow enough that ransacking of homes and businesses took place, leaving her pickings reasonably slim, in large part too because she initially avoids going anywhere near the cities believing them to be far more dangerous than the open, village-strewn countryside she prefers.

What emerges most forcefully is that Monster is less scared of what she knows to be true and more of what she imagines could be waiting for her, the product of a childhood in which threats lay around every corner, with everyone seemingly trying to push her square peg into their figurative round hole and treating her badly if she didn’t comply.

Katie Hale (image courtesy official Katie Hale site)

The fissures in Monster’s psyche become all the more apparent when she finds a feral girl in a city shop near to her new rural home and takes her home to humanise and help her to survive a world overwhelmed by threat but possessing little in the way of human kindness and care.

She proceeds to teach her new charge, who she clearly realises is like a daughter to her, lessons on what it means to be human, everything from language to social skills to tending the chickens and sheep and sowing crops, and as My Name is Monster progresses, she discovers that perhaps she is not the only misfit left alive at the end of the world.

One of the great rewards of this brilliantly alive novel is its rumination on what it is like to be an outcast, even before the end of the world.

If you grew up, like this reviewer, as one of those people who didn’t find an easy home in the folds of social orthodoxy, you will find much with which to identify in Monster who approaches life with a dismissive individualism but who is far more flawed and vulnerable than she likes to admit, something which comes under direct duress when her adopted daughter turns out to be every bit as monster-ish as she is.

“Sometimes she says to me, ‘A survivor does not want things, she only needs things.’ But Mother is not a survivor, she is a creator. I am the one whose name means survivor, that’s what she says, and I do want things. I mean, I want things that I don’t need. I want the shiny woman back. I want eyes like hers that are as warm and wet as milky tea. I want more sweet and good things in the larder, like jams. I want to stand on top of the mountain again. And I want more humans who are not dead people. I want someone to talk to who isn’t Mother.” (P. 229)

As My Name is Monster progresses through its relatively short but wholly engrossing story, we are shown that it is possible to find home, belonging, hope and family at the end of everything but that you have to work hard to get it, far beyond just the simple mechanics of survival.

Tenacious to an impressive degree, Monster doesn’t necessarily struggle to feed herself or her daughter or to craft a life that will help them survive in a world now inimical to their continued existence.

Where she finds challenges, and where My Name is Monster finds fertile and endlessly compelling storytelling ground, is in the more existential areas of living which do not disappear simply because the civilised world has ended.

Monster’s psyche does not simply park itself in neutral, and simply let her and her daughter, who has her own firm ideas on what life should look like (she wants to LIVE, not just SURVIVE), go about their business undisturbed by past trauma which follows them into this new blighted age and demands they accommodate or deal with it even as they work hard to find food, water and clothing.

My Name is Monster makes a real moving case for the fact that no person on this planet, not even the outcasts, monsters and misfits can switch off their humanity and that even in the apocalypse, it is not enough to simply survive; you must also work to make life worth the living, something which comes to preoccupy Monster and her equally willful daughter and which leads to some wholly satisfying reading which knows that our innate humanness will survive long after the civilisational accoutrements we hold so dear have long disappeared into history.

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