My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

June 6, 2019

After the Sickness has killed off her parents, and the bombs have fallen on the last safe cities, Monster emerges from the arctic vault which has kept her alive. When she washes up on the coast of Scotland, everyone she knows is dead, and she believes she is alone in an empty world.

Monster begins the long walk south, scavenging and learning the contours of this familiar land made new. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows. Changing her own name to Mother, Monster names the child after herself. 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.

Regular readers of The Eloquent Page will know I am a huge fan of all things apocalyptic. It may sound a little strange, perhaps even counter-intuitive, but I find this particular sub-genre to be oddly life affirming. The end of humanity tends to bring out either the best or worst in people. I appreciate that refreshingly brutal honesty.

When you read apocalyptic fiction, the stories fall broadly into one of two categories; first there is the graphic, THE END IS NIGH, visual blockbusters. Great fun, entertaining as hell and, more often than not, utter nonsense.

It’s the second category that I find far more interesting, they’re the books that grab my attention. I love those apocalyptic stories that shift focus away from society, scale things right down, and follow the journey of the individual. These introspective, character driven tales are consistently fascinating.  My Name is Monster by Katie Hale falls squarely into this latter category and is a perfect example of this subtler, more subdued fiction.

It’s the ever-changing dynamic between Mother and Monster that lies at the heart of this novel. Following these two survivors, thrust together through circumstance, has an intimate quality. They live a solitary existence with only each other for companionship. This closeness is both a blessing and a curse. An intense bond develops between each character, sometimes this provides comfort but in other instances it provokes anger. Mother and Monster behave just like any other family I suppose. They are ordinary people attempting to survive in extra-ordinary conditions.

There is a reflective tone throughout the novel. Hale’s writing deftly examines all manner of subjects. The nature of love and loneliness, family and belonging are all explored. My Name is Monster poses the question – how important is human connection to our existence? No matter how independent we might think we are, I suspect there is always a drive to be a part of something greater.

In some respects, Mother and Monster are flips sides of the same coin. Mother focuses all her energies on just surviving. Before the Sickness she had already begun to step away from society, a pre-emptive isolation due to her fragile notion of self. Mother’s own childhood and formative years were difficult so becoming part of a new surrogate family is challenging in many respects. Monster is the polar opposite: insanely curious and open-minded. The trauma of the apocalypse has left her essentially a blank slate. In many respects Monster is the lucky one, she has been re-born into a new world without any preconceived notions. There is no fear or emotional baggage to contented with only endless exploration and understanding.

I’m was particularly impressed by how the author uses stillness and silence in the narrative, especially when it is used to convey emotion. Once they have found somewhere to live, Mother and Monster exist in their own little bubble. The longer they spend together the less necessary words seem to become. There are a handful of perfectly pitched moments where the lack of verbal communication between the two is just as telling as any conversation they may have. This feat is that much more impressive when you realise this is Hale’s debut novel.

Fans of The Last of Us by Rob Ewing, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, or The Last by Hannah Jameson should consider checking this novel out. My Name is Monster proves that a quiet apocalypse can be a beautiful, delicate thing. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, like all the best fiction it got me thinking. If you are looking for a post-apocalyptic tale that will engage the grey cells and press all the appropriate emotional buttons, then you need look no further.

My musical recommendation to accompany My Name is Monster is the haunting soundtrack to the wonderful film Cargo by Trails. I was looking for something that captured the emotive elements of the story, and I think this original music from a genuinely emotive zombie movie is an ideal fit. It also seems fitting as the novel and movie are both ultimately about family and then lengths you would go to in order to protect your own.

My Name is Monster is published by Canongate is available now. Highly recommended

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