Review: From Here On, Monsters by Elizabeth Bryer, by Jemimah Halbert Brewster

From Here On, Monsters (2019) by Elizabeth Bryer

In Elizabeth Bryer’s From Here On, Monsters protagonist Cameron is an antiquarian book dealer who has recently inherited a bookshop from her mentor. To help pay the bills she takes on some extra work, a rather abstract occupation producing synonyms in a computer program for a celebrated artist. Also, at the beginning of the novel Cameron is called to evaluate a codex written in a strange format and antique language, and whose author, a professor of history, has disappeared without a trace.

As the story progresses these seemingly random elements begin to converge, beginning with the appearance of Jhon, a man who seeks refuge in Cameron’s bookshop and whom she hires to work there and translate the codex on the days she spends working for the artist. Cameron also investigates the author and history of the codex, discovering that the professor developed a philosophy which stated that copies and translations should emulate their originals as closely as possible, including the language, writing implements and materials used to produce them. This concept is then mimicked by Bryer’s novel itself when several pages of the translated codex are included and formatted like the codex itself, meaning the reader must turn the From Here On, Monsters sideways in order to read it. It transpires that the translated codex recounts a history of the stories and translations of the Sinbad the Sailor tale, positing that written versions of it made its way to Australia in the 1500s—and may well have been here even earlier—traveling via established trade routes through Southern Africa and South-East Asia, by various means, mishaps and miracles, much like Sinbad’s tale itself.

Over the course of the book Cameron and Jhon settle into a routine, the bookshop acting as a sort of sanctuary, a place of safety, refuge and solid history in an otherwise alienating and inhospitable city. As the codex is translated, and as Cameron’s work for the artist becomes slowly more disturbing, the dread-tinged atmosphere of the city and its inhabitants builds into tangible, fully-realised monsters roaming her building in the night. Cameron and the people around her begin to experience lapses in memory, illustrated by literal blanks on the page that serve to build fear and illustrate the concept of horror vacui; a deep and treacherous fear of the blank, empty and unknown. This is placed in parallel with the European fear of a place on the other side of the planet that was imagined to be nightmarish, upside-down, and full of terrifying monsters limited only by the imagination (thus the title, a note from a European-drawn map that illustrated the unknown Australian continent with the comment ‘From here on, monsters’). This fear and distrust of the unknown, this horror vacui, was then codified and justified in the terra nullius myth, and thus the colonial narrative erasure of Australia’s first peoples is placed in parallel to the daily erasure and dismissal of vulnerable peoples who arrive here seeking refuge.

From Here On, Monsters builds slowly into a burning, noir-ish mystery that weaves together elements of history, imagination, education, misinformation, mythology, erasure and the essence of narrative as a building block for how we interpret the world and the people around us. It seems incredible that Bryer has so cleverly woven these many elements into one narrative, and yet this novel is comprised of incredibly complex layers and it can be unpacked in many different ways. It is highly interpretive, but also very clear in its purpose, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves their books rich with text, subtext, and metaphor, with a heavy dose of corrected history dragged into the present to be examined under a microscope. It is not a light read, but it is entertaining, highly informative, and important.

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