My Name is Monster by Katie Hale
Published by Canongate Books, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Katie Hale’s debut is a thematically complex take on post-apocalyptic fiction that explores the notions of survival, belonging, the enduring influence of societal roles, and the complexities of motherhood.
The world has been decimated by war and disease. Our heroine – who refers to herself only by her childhood nickname, Monster – was an engineer who worked as part of a research team dedicated to finding a cure for the world’s Sickness. When the last of her team dies, she emerges from their arctic vault, convinced she is the last human on Earth. During the perilous journey back towards her parent’s home in Scotland, she establishes a rhythm of survival, embracing her animalistic instincts. When she finds and takes in a feral young girl, she must learn how to care for someone other than herself for the first time, and find a way to reset the boundary between surviving and living.
Though this functions as a nuanced and compelling novel in its own right, it draws heavily on the primary themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, establishing many literary parallels that enhance its impact. From the moment Monster adopts the young girl as her own, she bestows her name upon her new protégé and restyles herself simply as Mother. This is interesting for a number of reasons. In a very literal sense, it’s suggestive of the idea that many women feel compelled to sacrifice their individuality the moment they become a mother, completely defined by their role as a caregiver (“… to create a person you must lose a person.”). On the other hand, it’s one of many allusions to Frankenstein; a playful nod to the concept of role reversals and the common misconception concerning the true ‘monster’ of the piece. It also serves as an in to the book’s look at the dynamic between creator and creation, with Mother quite literally attempting to shape Monster in her own image; to give her the life she never had – for better or worse.
I thought the worldbuilding was handled really well. We’re given glimpses of society’s collapse, but never enough in one go for it to feel like an info-dump, or for it to inhibit the reader’s imagination. I always admire when an author resists the temptation to spoon-feed their audience every extraneous detail, allowing the world to reveal itself just enough, without ever overshadowing the characters. This sentiment is reflected in the prose as well, which paints beautiful pictures without ever feeling overdone.
As with Frankenstein, the book also explores the power and wonder of language, as Monster learns how to define the world around her, and comes to understand the shortfall between literal meaning and truth. Most fascinating of all, however, is its look at ingrained societal roles. Not only does Mother instantly abandon her previous assertion that she thrives as a loner once the possibility of companionship arises, but she very quickly begins to enforce strict routine upon her daughter. The savagery of survival and the natural instincts that kept Mother alive when she was alone are no longer enough; the moment there is a semblance of society or community, old taboos regain their horror, and notions of decency and etiquette rise to the surface once more. From here, Hale is able to explore both the beauty and the danger that come with love and mentorship, and the unique brand of hope inherent to a fresh start: “Maybe getting better doesn’t mean going back to how it used to be, but moving forwards instead.”
This is the kind of read that is so intelligent, subtle, and layered in its approach, that it only improves the more time I take to mull it over. I can’t wait to see what Hale writes next.
You can pick up a copy of My Name is Monster from Book Depository by clicking here.