I was excited about reading this novel. It felt like it would be the perfect Halloween read and I wasn’t wrong. If you can imagine a world in which a virus has made all animal flesh deadly for humans, our hunger for meat leaves only one option available. No guesses as to what that might be.
Once you’ve separated out your herds, made choices about how to dehumanise the meat – remove its vocal chords, never dress it, bring it up in cages, remove pregnant heads’ limbs to keep them from harming themselves, refer to it euphemistically etc. – there is still no getting away from the look of an arm or torso hanging in a butchers shop, or the desirable curve of a naked male or female; the bestial pretence is wafer thin.
Tender is the Flesh is of course an exploration of monstrosity. Who are the real beasts? No question, it is us.
The storytelling of this novel is tremendously compelling. Moving between the narratives of three generations of one family and the children whose lives were first changed on the fateful day the village madman stole the car keys belonging to the Pexton oil company representatives, we explore the past and present of this one African village with Thula, a child at the time the novel opens, at its heart.
What fascinates me about the novel is not only how wide-hearted it is, but how clear it is at exposing modern day slavery and exploitation. Personal greed and the power of multinational companies are both to blame. The human condition is a complex one that harbours both sacrifice and selfishness, awareness and denial and we are never allowed to rest in any easy dichotomy of goodness and evil, right and wrong.
Fragile Monsters comes with many accolades. Hilary Mantel says it ‘Takes an immediate grip on the reader’s imagination and doesn’t let go’ and I would certainly agree. This is a stunning work of fiction whose ideas and characters really stay with you.
Durga grew up in Malaysia but left to study mathematics in Canada and though she has returned to Kuala Lumpur to teach maths at the university, living closer to her grandmother, Durga’s identity straddles these two places and cultures – forcing mathematics and logic upon the power of storytelling and suggestion (though by no means are these things so easily polarised in the novel).