Ammuma sucks in her breath, then lets it out again in a tower of scolding words. It’s a festival, she tells me, punctuating her sentences by slapping the broken wicker of the chair, how dare I suggest we ignore it? It’s far more important than rain, she says, far more important than grandmothers, even, and ungrateful granddaughters who’ve forgotten how they were raised.

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon is about the stories we tell to protect ourselves and our families, and the narratives we construct to survive the past.

Canadian maths professor, Dr Druga Panikkar returns to Malaysia after a long absence and immediately sets fire to the family home. Her ammuma (grandmother) is just as difficult as when Durga was a child. And Durga has forgotten how to be in Malaysia; she can’t quite manage her relationships — with Karthika the servant girl, or her childhood crush on English Tom, or with her infuriating Ammuma. Durga is haunted by her dead girlhood friend, Peony and the tragic death of her own mother. When she delves into the past, she find herself in danger of losing Ammuma.

Although at times I found the storyline a little unclear, I loved the sense of atmosphere and place in this book. Menon vividly brings the family and its home to life. The River Jelai was a sinister presence throughout the story, threatening to destroy everything in its path. Highlights for me also included Ammuma’s flashbacks to the past before Malaysian independence.

Overall, this was a gorgeous story of betrayal and redemption. A terrific debut by Menon. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Penguin for sending me a copy to review.

Publisher’s blurb:

A spellbinding novel of war and family betrayal set in Malaysia – The God of Small Things for our century

On a visit to her childhood home in rural Malaysia, Durga faces a reckoning. Stuck with her sharp-tongued grandmother in the rising heat, both women must untangle the truth from the myth of their family’s past. What happened to Durga’s mother after she gave birth? Why did so many of their family members disappear during the war? And who is to blame for the childhood tragedy that haunts Durga?

Fragile Monsters traces one family’s story from 1920 to the present day, unravelling a thrilling tale of love, betrayal and redemption against the backdrop of natural disasters and fallen empires. Written in vivid technicolour, with an electric daughter-grandmother relationship at its heart, this is a stunning debut novel about what happens when secrets fester through the generations.