Queer YA Spotlight: The Monster of Her Age

‘I think—aside from the adrenaline rush and vicarious feeling of surviving something just like the characters after you’ve watched a scary movie—I think I love horror so much because the whole world can be one big scary place, and especially for women, right?’ Riya carelessly flicks her plait, and brushes stray curls away from her face—something I’m beginning to notice she does when she’s excited. ‘But there’s something freeing about choosing to walk into a dark cinema and be scared. To take control and let yourself be frightened, to give yourself over to it. Because we don’t get a lot of say in what happens to us in the real world and the times we’re scared when we don’t want to be. Because there’s some creep on a train brushing up against you, or some perv at a party who thinks you being wasted is a free pass…’

In my head I think, Or some adults who think fear is entertainment, that your vulnerability is their authentic vision brought to life.

Riya continues, ‘But choosing fear? In a controlled environment, where the stories can push us to think about what we’d do in that situation—especially when most of the time the hero in a horror film is a woman—that’s amazing! That’s powerful.’

Premise: Ellie Marsden’s grandmother is the (in)famous Lottie Lovinger, who made her screen debut as a cricket-bat-wielding, mini-shorts-wearing Final Girl in a ‘70s slasher movie and has been an undisputed scream queen ever since. Once, Ellie wanted to follow in her footsteps, but her one experience as a child actor left her traumatised—and estranged from Lottie, who let the on-set abuse happen. But when Lottie has a stroke, Ellie must return home and reckon with her complicated relationship with the Lovinger family legacy. Was Lottie a heroine, or a monster? Can a person be both at once?

Rainbow rep: an f/f romantic subplot between a bisexual protagonist and a lesbian love interest; a tragic yet moving gay love affair hidden in the annals of family history/a cool gay grandfather (Bonus intersections: Jewish main characters; Indian love interest; an extremely cool Deaf side character)

Content considerations: family members with terminal illness; discussions of child abuse (emotional manipulation, mild physical abuse, gaslighting); discussions of stalking and bullying

Danielle Binks has set her novel in an alternate universe based on one simple, yet radical, question: what if Australia had a film industry on par with Hollywood throughout the twentieth century? At first, it might seem like this is just set dressing—it lets this tale of multi-generational theatrics play out in Hobart, Tasmania rather than Beverly Hills, California. But there’s a tasty, subversive undercurrent to this tweak of history.

There’s a perception that Australian actors and creatives have to leave home turf for the US if they want to “make it”. This is true for golden age actors, such as Errol Flynn (who is folded into Monster’s backstory and cast in a fictional feud with one of Ellie’s ancestors), and also true today in cases like the Hemsworths and Rebel Wilson. For decades, The Movies were all made in America, and thus tied into American cultural touchstones.

In the author’s notes at the back of the novel, Binks outlines the (comparatively) stunted development of the Oz film industry and highlights the importance of funding the arts—government intervention in the early 1970s was, she writes, “what saved the industry from vanishing completely” (p.256). She celebrates the wave of iconic Australian films that followed this renewed support and this search for an Australian filmic identity, but also finds herself wondering, sadly, how many Aussie stories just weren’t told and how much Aussie talent went unappreciated simply because the infrastructure to let it shine just wasn’t there for most of the twentieth century.

Warping history so we did have a generation of Golden Age movie stars feels rebellious, in a climate where American media still dominates and where the arts sectors in this country are constantly crying out for support. It invites you to imagine and accept as fact that, yes, Hobart is just as glamorous as LA—why shouldn’t it be? This ethos underpins the narrative of The Monster of Her Age, weaving references to real, existing classic films with references to fictional ones that only exist in this universe to create a fun, hybrid world as the backdrop for Ellie’s complicated feelings about her family history.

Once she’s reluctantly back in Hobart to tend to Lottie’s bedside, Ellie meets Riya, a delightfully eccentric horror film nerd who co-hosts a feminist film club. She gets Ellie to see some of Lottie’s filmography from an outsider’s perspective, emphasising the subversive, creative potential of horror as a genre. By nature, it’s a genre that allows storytellers to get into the weeds: examine messy emotions, spotlight actions or ideas too nasty to be discussed by polite society, and often come out the other side empowering its audience in unexpected ways.

It all threads through into a really cool and interesting motif about fear and art. And Riya is a darling, and the romance is cute, but the draw of this book for me lies more in the messy narrative about family. We only see them interact once, but the relationship between Ellie and Lottie sits at the heart. Even if Lottie isn’t dead, it’s fascinating how she still haunts the story. As the reader, we get to know her only in snippets: memories of Ellie’s, and anecdotes from other relatives who all reveal very different sides to her. It hammers home to Ellie how difficult it is to truly know someone when they come to you through so many layers of glamorous makeup and/or fake blood.

The Monster of Her Age is a neat little peek into some big themes: how our complicated feelings about our family and our trauma can’t be easily resolved, how fame forces people to construct certain barriers around themselves, how the film industry can be a hellscape for child actors, and how horror movies rule. Combine that fun character drama with the alternate history that sets the scene, and I enjoyed the heck out of this book. It’s fun, equally sweet and serious.  It’s also a glowing, buzzing neon sign that says FUND THE ARTS, and that’s also something I can get behind any day of the week.

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Filed under Alex Reads

2 responses to “Queer YA Spotlight: The Monster of Her Age

  1. Pingback: “We Do Bones”: August ’22 Roundup | The Afictionado

  2. Pingback: A Pile of Australian Queer YA | The Afictionado

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