Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

"Little Monsters" by Charles Lambert (Picador, 2008)


I like the writing in general, the description of the people (especially of Margot) and of living in a pub. It's a page-turner.

  • Structure - The chapters are short, with punchy starts and twisty, cliff-hanging ends. The very start is "When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother". We gradually piece the story together, always in suspense. We discover that part of the story's set in Italy, then that Josef's there too, then that Carol and Josef are a couple.
  • Time-lines - The time-line of the 13-14 y.o. growing up in England, and the (43 y.o.?) woman helping at a refugee camp in Italian run in parallel, with correspondences - e.g. middle-age Carol absconds with Kakuna, then in the next chapter teenage Carol helps Nicholas desert.
  • Voice - The 1st person narrator is a woman born in 1948, who later goes to a girls-only school and has girly talks. Getting the voice right might be thought a challenge, but it works.

The 13 y.o. isn't presented as having adult wisdom. The events that sometimes baffle the 13 y.o. are interpreted later, with hindsight, by the older character -

  • "he was a refugee, with that way of being both grateful and resentful; grateful they have been taken in by others; resentful because they have no choice other than to be saved" (p.4)
  • "Sometimes I think there is only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill" (p.31)
  • "We forget how strange it used to be, as children, to be left alone in the house. Even our bedrooms were unfamiliar when we knew no one else was around, when we could do anything we liked and not be seen" (p.90)


The sentences have few superfluous words. Info-dumping is similarly parsimonious. We learn little of what happened outside the two timelines. This has pros and cons. I sometimes found the gaps frustrating

  • Present actions not explained -
    • On p.246 Carol says she wants Kakuna to live with them. The strong feelings Carol has for Kakuna are never explained. True, Carol identifies with Kakuna (they've both been saved; they both have brother killed by the army, etc), and Carol is childless, but why choose her over Josef? Why be so blind to her less pleasant characteristics even after Josef says 'You see that child in your classroom every day and yet you see another child, not her. You see some child from a book you have read and found touching, some poor, unwanted refugee whose heart is good. Carol. You see yourself.' p.194.
    • Richie's and Pat's mum's love of Carol seems immediate and unconditional. Why?
    • The final glider trip was clearly risky and pointless. Why did they go ahead with it? And why was Josef there anyway? If he'd been following them why did he make his presence known so late?
    In the end I began to believe anyone could have slept with (or killed, or put at risk) anyone else (gender-preference ambiguity adds to the options). The revelations delivered diminishing returns. At times, the unexplained behaviour seems to benefit the tidiness of the plot more than the character development.
  • Past events not explained - I don't want explanations for the sake of it. I don't mind missed years being elided. But why did Margot pick Josef for what seems like a marriage of convenience when she could have snared someone with more money (she seems to have the skill to do so)? How did Carol get on at university? How did she become attracted to Josef? And how did she end up in Italy?


Carol is called "little monster" by Aunt Margot, and "Pokemon" (Kakuna's keepsake) means "little monster". It's not easy to identify with anyone in the novel (which isn't a problem) partly because they're secretive, but there are symbols which may illustrate unspoken thoughts -

  • I wondered whether the pool and the myth of the Mermaid was introduced as a leit-motif. I suppose Carol's mother is potentially a guilty woman who dies even if she's innocent. Margot may be a witch. Kakuna emerges from water rather than drowns in it. But other than that, the pool's not a persistent presence.
  • Josef hides his past for reasons that remain unclear. In the pub cellar he constructed one dream (a glider) which went wrong. Years later, in a barn (instead of under a bar) he builds something like a representation of his past: a maze with compartments and translucent walls, somewhere to hide - "Each cubicle has become a cocoon, I think, in an enormous hive," thinks Carol, "I walk back towards what I think is the centre, uncertain where I am" (p.284). But she knows Josef is too old to complete it.

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