Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2021

From Here On, Monsters, by Elizabeth Bryer

Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of publicists who hand out new books willy-nilly at Goodreads.  Often, of course, readers respond with the expected five-star review ‘for an honest opinion’  which leaves us none the wiser about the book.  But sometimes, a book which is genuinely impressive but challenging in its execution, receives grudging two- or three-star reviews from readers ‘not usually huge on intensely ‘cerebral’ fiction‘.  And this is what has happened to Elizabeth Bryer’s debut novel From Here on, Monsters.  It has copped remarks ranging from ‘That was weird and went a bit over my head. Not my style of book at all‘ to ‘Lol, what?’ and ‘What began as strangely compelling ended as just strange. Presumably the whole thing is allegorical, or not? The Tragically Hip said it best, “It’s so deep it’s meaningless.”‘.   I would be the last person to suggest that there are IQ or academic requirements to read a book: this blog is a celebration of an ordinary reader’s adventures in fiction and the journey.  But these crude summations of a very fine book are so grossly unfair that I want to cauterise them with some of the well-deserved praise on the publisher’s website:

‘A novel that places the reader into the abyss of storytelling. this is more than a book of secrets, codes, geniuses, history and language. It is more than you could imagine.’ Tara June Winch, author of The Yield

‘Traverses the chasm between truth and history, and challenges our faith in the liberatory potential of art. It’s a modern Australian novel about modern Australia that, refreshingly, doesn’t read at all like a modern Australian novel.’ Shaun Prescott

‘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.’ Saturday Paper.


Firstly, the title. ‘From Here on, Monsters’ is derived from very early maps of the globe, when medieval mapmakers depicted the great empty space beyond the known world with the Latin hic sunt dracones: here be dragons. It meant dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of a medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps where potential dangers were thought to exist. (See Wikipedia, where you can see an example of such a map). The ‘great empty space’ a.k.a. ‘Terra Australis, the Great South Land’ was where Australia balances the landmasses of the rest of the globe.  Today, it is where monstrous denials of reality have sapped our compassion and integrity. In Bryer’s novel, modern Australia is a land of monsters and strange creatures — not bunyips and platypuses, but people who have ‘excised their hearts’ so that they can no longer see the harm they are doing.

The novel, however, is not a polemic, far from it.  It’s a wily, intriguing mystery that plays with parallels, doubles, mirrors, word games, languages and history.  The novel begins in Cameron Raybould’s antiquarian bookshop and a quick look at some of the texts referenced gives some idea of the playfulness that weaves its way through the novel: the Big Issue’s cryptic crossword page; Kafka’s The Trial; a special order for The Opium Wars (but which one??); a customer after some modernists like Zora Neale Hurston, Futabatei Shimei, Osip Mandelstam, and Clarice Lispector.  Then there’s Perec’s Oulipo novel A VoidPliny’s encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia; catalogues of artworks like Elizabeth Durack’s Seeing—through the Philippines and Jennifer Dickerson’s Chiaroscuro; Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding; and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. There are still images from an old Frankenstein film too, and James Joyce’s famous palindrome ‘Tattarrattat’ gets a mention as the answer to a cryptic crossword clue.

The Thousand Nights and a Night (Karmashastra, 1885)(cover) (Wikipedia)

The most significant of the literary references, however, is to A Thousand Nights and a Night a.k.a. 1001 Nights — the collection of stories  known to English readers as framed by the story of Scheherazade telling these tales to her husband to save her life. In Richard Francis Burton‘s 1885 translation, Volume 6 contains the story of Sinbad the Sailor.  But (unless you are a scholar) readers of the English version probably won’t know that Burton’s translation was preceded by Antoine Galland’s French translation in 1701, and that curiously combined in Galland were the contradictory figures of the pedant and the fabricator.  Galland’s Syrian manuscript had only 282 stories, so he augmented it with stories from other sources, which is how Aladdin and Ali Baba and Sinbad came to be included in later Arabic versions.  (Who knew?)

Pedants and fabricators are key elements in this novel too, as we see in Cameron’s interview for a job as a ‘wordsmith’. She is invited by an artist, Maddison Worthington, to do a valuation of a trompe l’oeil library – a room whose walls are painted to look like shelves of books in a library.  Of all the applicants she is the only one to work with the deceit and values the ‘books’ as if they are real.  She fears she will not get the job because she has been pedantic in the way she approached the task but the fabricator is delighted and Cameron is hired.

The job is to deliver words and phrases to obscure real things, as in the weasel words we have all come to know so well. Words like ‘downsizing’ (i.e. sacking employees to increase profits) which are used to conceal uncomfortable truths and unethical activities.  Maddison wants these obfuscating words for an artwork, she says, but the truth is much more sinister.  Two of her other employees mysteriously disappear shortly after they do some strictly forbidden snooping…

Cameron has inherited her bookshop from Alistair who has inexplicably committed suicide.  His disappearance is one of many disappearances.  Nearly all the characters vanish at some stage, and so do words, ideas and memories.

One of those mysteriously missing characters is Professor Szilard, who believes that history should be written in the same circumstances as the events it describes.  So the Codex which has come into Cameron’s possession is written in the same medieval language and using the same materials as the era it purports to come from.  What’s more, Bryson’s book mimics the Codex too: some parts of it are printed in landscape and feature a ‘hole’ in the middle of the text, a blank space like the hole in the Codex where the string threads though it to bind it together.  (This reminded me of the great experimental writer B S Johnson’s Albert Angelo, which is famous for having holes cut in some of its pages.)

Jhon, a refugee from Equatorial Guinea, speaks five languages (Bube, Pichi, Spanish, French and English which he is trying to improve), and when Cameron offers him sanctuary in her bookshop, he begins the work of translating the Codex from the medieval Spanish (the language of the coloniser of Equatorial Guinea) into English (the language of the coloniser in Australia). These translations are the sections printed in landscape, and they tell an extraordinary story of how the tale of Sinbad the Sailor made its way to Australia via Arab trade routes which intersected with the Yolngu people of north eastern Arnhem Land. (The Yolngu traded with Macassans two centuries before European contact, and Arab traders were active throughout what we now know as Indonesia, so it’s not as far-fetched as one might think.  Indeed, I used to teach my Year 3 students about this pre-European contact, and they drew scenes of these peaceful encounters using wax and crayons to emulate batik.)

I loved this book.  I love its ingenuity, its humour and the importance of its theme.  It won the Norma K Hemming award but I think it should have been more widely acknowledged.


Now…

If you have read all the way down to here and you think this is a book for you, you can buy a copy for just $22 including postage from Elizabeth Bryer’s website.  I’ve bought a copy because the copy I read is from the library, and I want one of my own so that I can read it again whenever I feel like it.

But…

*drum roll*

*surprise!!!* I have also purchased an extra copy for a giveaway.  The usual rules apply: you can enter if you have an Australian postcode, and if you win, you’ll need to provide me with a postal address to pass on to Elizabeth within a fortnight of the post that announces the winner.  Expressions of interest in the comments below, please.

(Feel free to chat about the book as well, of course!)


Elizabeth Bryer is also a translator of Spanish whose work includes Napoleon’s Beekeeper, by José Luis de Juan, (Giramondo 2020, see my review.) Her other translations include Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn (Deep Vellum, 2016) and Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests (David R. Godine, 2019), for which she was awarded a PEN/Heim from PEN America.

Image credit: The Thousand Nights and a Night (Karmashastra, 1885)(cover) (public domain, Wikipedia) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Book_of_The_Thousand_Nights_and_a_Night_(Karmashastra,_1885)_(cover).jpg

Author: Elizabeth Bryer
Title: From Here On, Monsters
Cover design: Debra Billson
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781760781132, pbk., 274 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Oh yes please – this sounds fascinating!

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    • Hi Sue, wishing you good luck for this one!

      Like

  2. Ooh, yes please!

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  3. Based on your review, Lisa, I have just bought a copy. You knew I’d have to read it, didn’t you? :-)

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  4. Throwing my hat in the ring! It sounds fascinating.

    Those GoodReads quotes are the reason why I don’t follow reviews on GR. They’re almost as bad as the ones on Amazon where people give books one star because the postage was delayed 🤬 I just read reviews by trusted bloggers like yourself and the odd review by mainstream press (ie Guardian)

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    • There are a few trusted reviewers I follow on GR because they don’t have blogs e.g. Paul Fulcher, but most of them, no. And some of them are just plain unfair to the author.
      And then there’s the puerile ones that take off a star because the book doesn’t use quotation marks for speech. And the Australian author who rated all the Australian novels that she read with one-star!
      We live in a crazy world…
      Good luck in the draw:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve noticed that pattern with many Canadian authors too; it’s childish but, also, easy to recognize (though only if you click through to their profile, which obvs messes with the authors’ average ratings unfortunately) and says so much more about the rate-r than the author. *sigh*

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  5. This sounds fascinating. Of course, might be difficult to find in UK…

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    • It’s a global publisher, Pan Macmillan, so maybe? Otherwise try the London Review Bookshop, they had quite a good range of Australian books last time I was there…

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      • Checked in several places and alas, no! Maybe in a year or two…

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  6. Just popping in to say that the book sounds fascinating. As you might imagine, the title immediately draws me in. And codices! All so intriguing. Goodreads can be so tough on authors, especially for a debut. I keep an eye out for what’s new, so it’s a shame this one hasn’t been given more air. (I’d love to be in the draw, but having won one once, you might prefer to leave me out this time.)

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    • Absolutely not, Robyn, I insist that you enter. I haven’t advertised this giveaway on Twitter because I want the winner to be one of my loyal readers, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve had a win before. (Not that I keep tabs anyway!)

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  7. I got all excited and ordered the book half way through your review. I regret nothing. Thank you, Lisa – you have been my fave bookblogger for so may years now.

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    • Thank you, Sylvia, that so nice to hear.
      You can still enter, I’ll add your name to the draw and if you win, you could give the extra copy to someone else!

      Like

  8. This sounds fascinating, truly inventive. Like Kim, I don’t use GR or Amazon for guidance, for the reasons you’ve both given. I’m trying not to spend much money in the run up to Christmas but if it doesn’t have a UK publisher in the new year I can see a Readings order happening!

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  9. This sounds really fascinating Lisa, and how ridiculous that it’s been wasted on ‘reviewers’ who obviously just want the latest bestseller…

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    • The whole ‘rate and review’ thing, from toasters to doctors to books, has lost all meaning IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Well you’ve sold me Lisa – this sounds fantastic

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  11. Sounds amazing! I agree that it seems senseless to offer a title like this indiscriminately to readers, but there’s that whole “no publicity is bad publicity” position (which I’m not sure applies here, because it’s not some viral meme is it). I’ve heard many authors say that they find the 3 star (out of 5) reviews most useful because they usually offer “food for thought” but even there it often seems obvious that it was simply a poor match between author’s intention and reader’s taste.

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    • I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect publicists to read the books they publicise…
      What really surprises me about this one, is that it was published two years ago and I didn’t know about it until I went to the AALITRA seminar.

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  12. It sounds like one for me so please put me down.

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  13. Your review is enticing – I will definitely have to read this book, although it might have to wait until the end of the school year so I can give it the attention it obviously needs. If I don’t win this copy, I’ll happily buy my own!

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  14. I almost never read GoodReads reviews, because I don’t know most of the reviewers and it’s clear that most read differently to the way I do. I’m not really interested in reading comments from people who assess books on such different criteria to mine. As you say, that’s not to criticise their tastes but to say that their tastes and mine are different. I’d rather just read the bloggers I know than spend time at GoodReads? I go to GoodReads for covers, publishing details, and sometimes synopsis.

    I’d never heard of Bryer, but this book does sound interesting. Love the idea of “pedants and fabricators”.

    Like

    • That’s mostly true for me too, but I got to know some of them when I was doing shadow juries with Stu, if they didn’t have blogs of their own. And there are some interesting reviewers who’ve ‘followed’ me so I’ve had a look at what they read, and that’s been interesting too. Sometimes a bit outside my comfort zone, but that’s not a bad thing.

      But I would say that my time there is fleeting, and I’ve never yet taken any notice of recommendations, either algorithm generated or from friends. It’s more a case of me using GR for my own purposes, to track what I’ve got, and what I plan to read. I put part of my reviews there because I know I’ve got some readers who haven’t subscribed to the blog but they come to it via the link at GR.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes understand. And, I often add my reviews but sometimes forget, just in case it’s of value.

        Liked by 1 person


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