Monster Love by Carol Topolski

Sherilyn and Brendan are an immaculate, newly married couple living in a well-to-do street. Always perfectly turned out, their house and garden styled in exquisite, if monochrome, taste, they are a couple on the rise. Always polite, their social responses appropriate if distant, they are aloof but accepted, admired even. Until…

Until Sherilyn, despite Brendan’s vasectomy, falls pregnant.

I’m tempted to say very little else about the novel because in a sense discussing what happens ruins a reader’s pleasure, but I am going to say more, so if you are hooked already don’t carry on reading this until you’ve finished the book.

The baby, born of this perfectly turned-out couple who planned never to have children, is viewed by Sherilyn and Brendan as an intruder. Samantha (the child) has entered their lives deliberately intending to destroy Sherilyn and Brendan’s happiness. Even though they plot to climb social ladders and earn good money, they really want nothing but each other. The answer is simply to shut the child out of their lives by turning her bedroom into a homemade cage (she is two when they first lock her away), until even the most menial care – putting a commode and a TV in the box with her with a sink just outside, delivering food, cleaning her up, visiting a meagre three times a day, hitting or burning her with cigarettes when she doesn’t comply with their wishes – gets too much for them and they realise the outside world will soon intervene with questions over her schooling, not to mention the pesky visit from a social worker, and decide to simply go away leaving Samantha behind. The girl, now four years’ old, is found dead some weeks later after an attempted burglary.

This is where the story takes an interesting turn. You expect a novel of this kind to unpick Sherilyn and Brendan seeking answers to their behaviour. In some ways the novel does do this. They find solace in each other, a home no one else has ever been able to provide. Sherilyn was overshadowed by her perfect baby sister and abused by her father. Brendan’s mother died when he was very little and he was then passed between step-mothers and hit by all parent figures, growing into a tall, muscular man who wet his bed and made strange collections of feathers, insect wings and scarab beetles. But there is more to them and their relationship than this. Instead of delving further into their past, we look more closely into their present, into their connection which – certainly for them at least – transcends physical boundaries and makes prison a meaningless punishment: they remain in control because they remain separate in their togetherness; their love transcends. This isn’t what you expect from a novel like this. You aren’t made to feel pity, or even to question your place in a human race that contains their disregard for a child, not even a morbid fascination. Instead, you are presented with something entirely singular and this stops the book from being a cliché and forces you to rethink easy presumptions about the perpetrators of such a terrible crime.

This side-stepping of the expected exploration of the sick mind is enhanced by the way in which the story is told through the multiple voices of the couple’s neighbours, police officers, social worker, co-workers, prison staff, judge, jury member, and family. These voices are far more troubled by Samantha’s death than her parents and the interlacing of these different interpretations of the story weave an intriguing picture of the wider impact of Brendan and Sherilyn’s actions. The multiplicity suggests the unending social ripple of story made painfully visible by the terrible, normally construed unnatural, nature of this particular story.

I’m not sure, in the end, if I wanted the novel to go in this direction. I wanted more of a picture of what Brendan and Sherilyn actually did to Samantha, more of how, why and what they felt as they behaved and acted as they did. The title, Monster Love, suggests an author eager to explore their love, their acts, as a portent (monster comes from monere, to warn), a warning to others and yet, in order to warn you need to understand that a monster is not something different but instead something possible, something whose potential exists in all of us. I think the collective portrait is one way in which Carol Topolski attempts to show this, and I admire this novel immensely, but I wanted a more intensely personal exploration even if you may well not. Certainly, this is a gripping and provocative novel that makes me want to read more of Carol Topolski’s work. I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week I’m reading The Last Novel by David Markson.