lip lit: from here on, monsters
From Here On, Monsters is Elizabeth Bryer’s debut novel. Having been published in Meanjin, Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and Overland (to name just a few), as well as having worked as the inaugural translation editor for The Lifted Brow, Bryer is no stranger to the Australian literary scene. This shows in her writing, which is clear, succinct, and beautiful to follow. Every word is carefully chosen, leaving the sentences short and sharp. This attention to detail is not only a joy for the reader, but also serves as a clever literary device given that the premise of the novel is focused on words and the power they yield.
The protagonist, Cameron – an antiquarian bookseller – is commissioned to value a rare codex given to an employee of an academic who vanished eleven years ago. As Cameron delves further into the mystery of the codex, parts of her world begin to disappear.
However, this book is hard to summarise succinctly. To give any kind of detailed synopsis would be to destroy the pleasure of following the threads as they unravel in ways the reader could never guess. The story veers wildly from where it first begins, and the reader is dragged into the fantastical world that Bryer has created – where every action and reaction is used as a metaphor and nothing is as it seems.
The blurb on the back of the book describes Bryer’s novel as ‘Part detective story, part thriller, part adventure’. While I would agree it is all of these things, this book does not fit neatly into any of these categories nor would I classify it as such. Rather, the novel is magic realism at its finest.
Each magical element is used to explore the reality of the Australia we currently inhabit, drawing out the dangerous aspects of the political climate and stretching them to demonstrate the illogical and bizarre ways in which politicians manipulate the public to create an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.
From Here On, Monsters begins with Cameron reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial. This deliberate and skilful choice by Bryer introduces the reader to the themes that will be reflected within her own story. As with Kafka’s work, the magic realism elements within Bryer’s novel are used to amplify social issues, particularly the cruelty of authority towards the most vulnerable members of society. Both Kafka’s protagonist and Cameron fumble their way through a world that doesn’t make any sense – a world that so closely resembles the one we know that even the magical elements feel familiar.
Another novel to which one could draw comparisons with Bryer’s (and again, this feels like a conscious choice by the author) is Orwell’s 1984, as Bryer’s novel also explores the power of words to shape and even remake reality. For example, when the world that Cameron knows begins to unravel, one of the first things to disappear are certain words – by losing those words, Cameron loses people she cares about and the truth she values.
One of my favourite parts of the novel is when Cameron is commissioned to assess a painting of old books. While many would reject such a commission, Cameron pretends that the paintings are real books and thus toys with the notion of an objective reality, demonstrating that things can be seen as other than what they are if all parties agree to the pretence.
This is a beautiful, thought-provoking novel and one I will be reflecting on for a long time.