3 New Books About Monsters in Unexpected Places
Gated suburbia. A kindergarten classroom. A medical research lab. None of these places, on the surface, seem like a place for monsters (although perhaps that depends on your feelings about kindergarteners and how many times you’ve read Frankenstein). The dark secrets in these new novels prove otherwise, showing that the monstrous can appear in a pleasant, unlikely guise. They also show that “monster” is an easy, reductive label for something that’s more complex and multifaceted. That being said, your spine will still tingle and your breath catch as you read the roster of this week’s book club.
1. The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley ($27): “Beowulf” is the OG of English lit (so OG it’s in OE, or Old English), and the titular character, a Scandinavian warrior who eventually defeats a horrible monster, then the monster’s mother, becomes king of the Geats and then dies defeating a dragon, has met everyone from Wonder Woman to Xena to the crew of Star Trek: Voyager. The Mere Wife updates this story to be set in a planned suburban neighborhood called Herot Hall and its nearby mountain, whose cave is home to a former soldier with PTSD, Dana, and her son, Gren. (As a clarification, mere in this case isn’t a reductive label; it’s Old English for “sea.”)
Willa, mother to young Dylan, has always been skeptical of this engineered community, finding it to instead be more isolating than communal. The inhabitants of both cave and mountain see each other as dangerous and forbidden, but when socialized Dylan and wildling Gren become friends, their mothers find that the fortress gates have been breached. When Gren runs off with Dylan despite the surveillance cameras and security tools of Herot Hall, Willa’s comfortable life and Dana’s austere and sharp one collide. Headley skewers notions of both suburbia and heroism and, like the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet of “Beowulf,” gets you to listen.
“‘Listen,’ someone whispers into my ear. ‘Listen to me.’ Am I dead? ‘Listen,’ the voice whispers. ‘In some countries, you kill a monster when it’s born. Other places, you kill it only when it kills someone else. Other places, you let it go, out into the forest or the sea, and it lives forever, calling for others of its kind. Listen to me, it cries. Maybe it’s just alone.’”
2. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage ($27): “Hanna kept her words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity. She scrutinized Mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths. A rare person, like Daddy, spoke in butterflies, whispering colors that made her gasp. Inside, she was a kaleidoscope of racing, popping, bursting exclamations, full of wonder and question marks. Patterns swirled, and within every secret pocket she’d stashed a treasure, some stolen, some found. She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door. Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend. But, if she was being honest, there was another reason — a benefit. Her silence was making Mommy crazy.”
Seven-year-old Hanna Jensen refuses to speak. She’s been kicked out of three preschools and two kindergartens, and her mother Suzette has no option but to homeschool her. Suzette’s life has become very limited, which is something she thought she was used to after her years dealing with Crohn’s disease and surgeries that have been removing more and more of her small intestine. At this point, evenings out, including her husband Alex’s cherished work functions, are essentially nonexistent, because no babysitter will return for a second engagement. Though they’ve taken Hanna for scans and tests, there appears to be nothing physically wrong with her. Hanna’s parents are at their wits’ end, particularly Suzette — which works just fine for Hanna, because though she adores her father, her hatred for Suzette is unmatched.
Hanna is smart and canny. She knows that her mother probably didn’t want her to begin with, knows that she thinks of Hanna as “broken,” knows that she’s just looking for an excuse to send Hanna away. She barely knows who started their “war games,” but she’s pretty sure her mother is failing. Suzette knows that her daughter hates her and is beginning to lash out in more and more violent ways. Both know that something has to change, and soon. Told in alternating chapters between Hanna and Suzette’s points of view, Baby Teeth becomes an unexpected battle of perspectives for the ages, exploring the horror of a disrupted life and a child who is not what she seems.
3. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott ($27): Another epic rivalry brews in Abbott’s novel about two ambitious women whose lives become inextricably linked. In high school, Kit Owens meets Diane Fleming. Kit is very bright and wants to succeed, but not as much as Diane, who is so hyper-determined that their friendship can’t help but push Kit further, towards a scholarship funded by Dr. Severin, a scientist who studies what many would consider “women’s problems.” Kit and Diane seem good for each other, and everything is great — until Diane reveals a secret to Kit that is worse than anything Kit has ever heard, and Kit runs from the budding friendship.
Ten years later, Kit is a postdoc working in Dr. Severin’s lab when the lab gets NIH funding in a “sexy,” career-making grant to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder. PMDD is a condition that often causes those who have it to commit wildly self-destructive or violent acts, and for which the only current cure is the equally drastic removal of the reproductive system. Kit and the eight other postdocs, a rumor says, will have to fight it out for the three spots on the team. Kit’s not worried, until Dr. Severin brings in a postdoc from Harvard — and it’s Diane.
Kit wonders if Diane is a monster, or a monstrous reflection of herself; she wonders if we don’t all have something buried within ourselves, waiting to emerge and have its moment. “I guess I always knew, in some subterranean way, Diane and I would end up back together. We are bound, ankle to ankle, a monstrous three-legged race. Accidental accomplices. Wary conspirators. Or Siamese twins, fused in some hidden place. It’s that powerful, this thing we share. A murky history, its narrative near impenetrable. We keep telling it to ourselves, noting its twists and turns, trying to make sense of it. And hiding it from everyone else. Sometimes it feels like Diane is a corner of myself broken off and left to roam my body, floating through my blood.”
What books show you the hidden villains? Tag us in your next monstrous read @BritandCo.
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