From Here On, Monsters
Elizabeth Bryer’s From Here On, Monsters is a genuinely exciting debut from an Australian writer. This novel is playful, allegorical and formally ambitious, qualities that lend it a distinctly international flavour, in the way of Peter Carey’s early work. (Notably, Bryer has previously produced English translations of Spanish-language novels.) And, like Carey’s work, From Here On, Monsters has something urgent to say about contemporary Australia.
The novel is narrated by Cameron Raybould, an antiquarian bookseller, who is commissioned to evaluate a painted trompe l’oeil wall of books, “The Library of Deceit”. At the same time, she is called upon to appraise a book made of leather-covered board, palm leaves and animal skin, which is written in archaic Spanish.
The first commission leads her to be engaged as a “creative wordsmith” for the avant-garde conceptual artist Maddison Worthington. The second commission draws her into an intrigue involving colonial history and a missing historian whose methodology for representing the past includes replicating “the feel of the history in hand, the choice of typeface, of paper stock”. At the same time, Raybould discovers an asylum seeker, Jhon Dikuasa Mba, hiding out in her bookshop. She employs him to work in the shop and translate the codex, while she takes up a lucrative role as one of Worthington’s assistants.
The novel then bifurcates. First, there is the colonial history gradually revealed by Mba’s translation. The codex’s form is replicated in Bryer’s novel through experimental typographical presentation, and its content is replicated in the monsters that begin haunting the characters’ world. Then there is the mystery of Raybould’s work for Worthington, which involves writing “like a bureaucrat” so that “‘I don’t know’ became ‘I haven’t had any visibility on that’; and ‘being deported’ became ‘committing to an involuntary travel event’”. This project in stripping language of meaning, which is ultimately bound up with the government’s management of asylum seekers, is notably called “Excise Our Hearts”.
This strange and wonderful novel delights with its language games, but it also understands that such shenanigans are never just games. Words have an impact on how we understand reality. Words can damage humans of flesh and blood. In From Here On, Monsters, Bryer shows us how language is integral to our humanity.
Picador, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "Elizabeth Bryer, From Here On, Monsters". Subscribe here.