The body. The-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks. Words lose their meaning when you repeat them. So do bodies, even in all their variations. Dead is dead. It’s only the hows and whys that vary.
Detective Gabriella Versado has had better days.
Working homicide in impoverished metropolitan Detroit, Versado has seen it all—to the point where she’s even become desensitized to violence. “Even violence has its creative limits,” Versado thinks as Broken Monsters opens.
But Bambi is different.
A young, middle-school-aged African-American boy is found murdered—his torso hacked off from the rest of his body and glued onto the bottom half of a deer. “Bambi,” as the Detroit Police Department takes to calling the boy (your daily dose of morbid cop humor), is a new kind of crime in an already crime-ridden city. Detective Versado is drawn to the boy’s murder and rides the investigation with singular determination. Bambi’s murder, however, opens doors to horrific realizations and a terrifying new world.
A crime-noir thriller with a surprising supernatural twist, Broken Monsters is the newest novel from celebrated South African author Lauren Beukes. And it’s a pretty damn good book, too. This is the first book I’ve read from Beukes (who authored last year’s The Shining Girls, reviewed not-so-favorably by fellow Book Smuggler Ana)—and I’m not exactly sure how to feel about it. Broken Monsters is a thriller, and a traditional thriller, at first blush. It’s the story of a gruesome murderer who creates horrific tableaus that happen to involve human corpses. But it’s also the story of a single mother struggling to connect with her teenage daughter; of a teenage girl and her best friend brandishing the invincibility of their youth; of an aging douchebag hipster trying vainly to recapture the thrill of fame and youth; of a homeless man caught in the crossfire; of an artist and an entity trying very desperately to get home. It’s a story about the power of dreams, of the nature of art and its need for an audience, and human action and reaction.
Needless to say, Beukes covers a lot of ground in Broken Monsters.
Is it a good book, though? It’s certainly one that lingers with you. It feels a little bit like a companion story to the first season of HBO’s True Detective in its gritty realness; similarly, it reminds me of some of the more cerebral supernatural thrillers of Stephen King or Peter Straub. But even those comparisons are a little hollow—what Beuekes does so very well, better than the comparisons just made, is develop voices for her distinct characters (especially her female characters). Easily, my favorite moments in Broken Monsters were the relationships between Gabi Versado and her daughter Layla—a mother-daughter relationship in those tumultuous teenage years that felt incredibly genuine in its tension, pain and love—and the relationship between Layla and her best friend, Cass, as they dabble in things like crappy social drama, friendships and provoking pedophiles online through various forms of social media. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
Broken Monsters also does a beautiful job showcasing the city of Detroit in all its ruin and fallen glory in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative or hollow; it just is. (Unlike Jonno’s attempts at journalism, which are terrible. That character is the worst. Ugh.) Detroit is just as important a character in this book as Gabi and Layla and TK and Clayton—and Beukes manages to imbue the city with a sense of beauty and tragedy in equal measure.
That’s really what Broken Monsters does so well: It juxtaposes the fantastical with the banal in a way that is both beautiful and tragic. I love that there isn’t a sense of judgment in the book (well, with the exception of the message of the pervasiveness of Digital Media, which felt slightly heavy-handed and irritating); that the murderer isn’t some cruel, Evil Entity or Demon.
But once again, I’m drawn back to the question: Is Broken Monsters a good book? Beukes’ writing is brutal and starkly evocative; her characters are all believable, if somewhat tending toward the stereotypical (that doesn’t make them less believable, though). The plotting is where things fall apart, a little bit. It’s a slow burn of a book, and it’s one that will either work for a reader, or not.
As for me? I appreciate the cold beauty of the book, though I don’t know if I’ll ever want to experience it again.
But Broken Monsters is a story about art needing an audience—you give it a try, and let me know what you think.
In Book Smugglerish, 6 and a half taxidermied chimeras out of 10.