28th May, 2019

Review: My Name is Monster by Katie Hale (Canongate Books)

After the war came the "Sickness" which killed off what was left of the world's population. The last safe cities are destroyed when Monster emerges from a vault in the Arctic circle that has enabled her to survive.
When she washes up on the shores of Scotland, all the people she once knew are dead, and she thinks of herself being alone in an empty world.

Monster begins the strenuous walk down to what used to be England, scavenging and learning to stay alive in a once familiar, yet now unfamiliar landscape. By and by, she manages to rebuild a life for herself on a deserted farm. However, when she is roaming the city one day looking for resources, she finds a girl: an almost feral child whom she teaches everything she knows. Renaming herself Mother, Monster passes her own name on to the girl. As young Monster learns from Mother, she also discovers her own desires, realising that she wants very different things to the woman who made but did not create her.

In its "sole survivor who moulds another person in their own image" theme, Hale's story is clearly inspired by works such as Frankenstein or Robinson Crusoe. Strictly speaking, the story isn't anything new: we have a post-apocalyptic Britain like we've seen in other works and people who have to remake their lives. Still, the author deftly makes this trope her own through little peculiarities.

I really liked this story and devoured it in two sittings. What first struck me as odd was the seeming lack of depth in the characters. However, it soon becomes clear that Hale quite conciously leaves a lot of room for speculation. We only learn vague snippets about Mother and Monster's previous lives and while this elusiveness and "not-knowing" causes a bit of frustration it is also a clever way to illustrate the necessity of a new beginning. The past is gone and no longer matters, even the future is uncertain and all that counts is the present. At least for the moment because as the story evolves the future does regain a certain significance and there are even signs of hope and reinvention. Eventually, I found that I appreciated the way in which Mother is depicted as seemingly emotionless because it added perfectly to the bleak atmosphere of the story. Without spoiling any of the plot, I also loved the shift in narration towards the middle of the book as it provided an eluminated change of perspective.

Hale clearly is a wonderfully gifted writer and amazing at describing scenery. Her renderings of the deserted Scottish moors as well as sprawling abandoned urban spaces are stunning and carry lots of atmosphere. As a reader you can easily feel and visualise these haunting landscapes through the author's dexterous writing.

My Name is Monster is a truly satisfying novel about power and about how much social norms are imprinted on us, even when they are no longer applicable. It is also a story about strength, love and creating a purpose in life.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

(This book will be out with Canongate Books in early June.)

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