“Granny 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.”
“My parents got smushed to death in a boating accident when I was nine,” the twelve-year-old narrator of Emerald Fennell’s Monsters tells us. “Don’t worry,” she continues, “I’m not that sad about it.” The opening of the novel immediately sets the tone for this sinister narrative, made all the more striking by its idyllic seaside setting.
Our twelve-year-old narrator harbours a somewhat intense obsession with murder. Sent to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle at their cliff-side hotel, the narrator meets a boy, Miles Giffard, with similarly macabre preoccupations. When the dead bodies of women begin to wash up in fishermen’s nets with alarming frequency, the two children, unlike the horrified town, are in their element.
Populated with a colourful cast of characters, from Miles’s overbearing mother to the narrator’s quivering nervous aunt, the novel’s strength lies in the unsettling relationship between our two (occasionally borderline sociopathic) protagonists. The balance of power between them is a nuanced and tenuous one, always shifting. Notably, both characters, in all their dark and macabre glory, never felt like caricatures. They were real to me, drawing both my repulsion and my sympathy in equal parts, even as they spend much of their time gleefully re-enacting the murders that terrify the town’s other residents.
The novel carries a deliciously dark brand of humour throughout (“Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee,” the narrator tells us at one point, “but truly, Jean can get fucked”). It is these unexpectedly funny moments that make the story’s gradual descent into increasingly more disturbing territory all the more effective as we move towards a chilling denouement that stayed with me long after I finished the book.
Words: Catherine Karellis