Lauren Beukes follows her excellent The Shining Girls with another cross-genre blend of the real and the other-worldly in Broken Monsters. When boiled down to its most basic elements Broken Monsters lays somewhere near the intersection of mystery and thriller with the majority of the focus on the murder investigation involving a young boy whose remains were sowed to those of a fawn. It’s a horrific premise but one that despite forming the bedrock of the narrative isn’t really what the novel is about. The novel features a variety of perspectives including that of the divorced Detective Gabriella Versado and her daughter Layla, the journalist Jonno, Thomas Keen (TK) a homeless Detroit native, and Clayton who the less I say about the better. Each different perspective offers a different thematic thread that weaves into a novel of surprising breadth that still offers a taught, cohesive story.
At its heart it might be just to call Broken Monsters a haunted house story, or at least a nascent one. The house, in the case of this story, being Detroit itself. The Dream, a strange entity whose goals outside of existence seem unclear, is what is pushing Clayton into his violent acts and Detroit, an icon of American Industry despite its current state, seems an appropriate place to be haunted by something called The Dream. Indeed, each of the different characters in the novel can in some sense be seen as avatars or reflections of the city itself. TK, the struggling homeless man once employed by Detroit’s factories; Gabriella, the city’s stalwart defender; Jonno, the naïve and opportunistic journalist trying to capitalize on the burgeoning arts scene; and Layla, a child moving at the Information Age’s lightning pace towards adulthood as a stand-in for Detroit’s future. It is interesting to note that TK and Clayton have somewhat similar backgrounds. Both are products of Detroit but where Clayton seems to have given in to hopelessness and rage, TK has maintained a certain degree of hope and industriousness. In many ways Clayton and TK are two sides of the same coin.
Much like The Shining Girls, Beukes isn’t interested in explaining away the otherworldly elements of her novel. Like the crime elements of the story, and the slice of life sections of the story, Beukes streets the supernatural in a very matter-of-fact fashion. She doesn’t ease audiences into things so much as toss it in their faces and it’s a technique that work welled in The Shining Girls, where it was baked into the nature of the narrative, but works less well here where that most otherworldly bits come at the novel’s climax. For me, it was easy to take in stride but I could definitely see how readers lulled into a false sense of security by the more conventional nature of the early narrative could be throne the for the novel’s supernatural heavy finale.
Broken Monsters really shines when it comes to it characters. Beukes makes each character wonderfully flawed in their own way. At the very least Clayton is pushed by his own psychosis and supernatural forces and it could be argued that his cations are not his own. However Jonno is a product of his own selfishness. There doesn’t seem to be anyone he isn’t willing to use and his increasing drive for fame is almost as damaging as anything Clayton does. Layla and her friend Cassandra are children born of our information saturated age and are rife with the selfishness and carelessness of youth. Gabriella obviously loves her daughter but is almost addicted to her work. TK is perhaps the least obviously flawed character of the bunch but his tragic (if honorable) past, selfless acts, and perhaps too trusting nature make him a compelling addition to the narrative. However, if TK can be seen as a foil to Clayton than his underdevelopment when compared to the rest of the narratives (outside Clayton) is perfectly understandable.
Beukes is an author to watch. Though I haven’t read Zoo City, both The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters are excellent novels. I can think of few, if any, other authors who manage to blend genres as seamlessly as Beukes. This is a bit of a double edged sword as it could easily alienate some readers. However, I find her seamless blend of the mundane and the unnatural elevates her fiction in fascinating ways allowing her freedom to experiment with narratives in new an interesting ways. Broken Monsters isn’t exactly an uplifting read but there is a kernel of hope at the heart of the story that will keep you through even the novel’s darkest moments.