Review: Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters 1Lauren Beukes’s novel Broken Monsters opens with a disturbing monologue, followed by police finding the body of a boy from the waist up, attached to the lower half of a deer. With a limited tolerance for horror and graphic violence, I assumed I was going to hate this book – which could prove awkward, seeing as how I was scheduled to interview the author at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

To my surprise and relief, Broken Monsters turned out to be a beguiling, if at times brutal read, in equal parts wild ride and provocation.

The story is told from multiple points of view. Detective Gabriella Versado is trying to make a life for herself and her daughter, Layla, despite the violence and despair she deals with in her work as a cop; while Layla is trying to deal with an online world that seems as dangerous as the one her mother works in. Jonno is a brokenhearted hack, looking to Detroit for a story that will reinvigorate his career, if not his life. And TK is a homeless man trying to help those like him put their broken lives back together.

Broken Monsters 2Beukes creates distinct and credible voices for her ensemble cast, skillfully weaving the narrative threads into a coherent whole.

Most remarkable is the voice of the killer. Unlike the amoral psychotics you get in a lot of crime fiction, Beukes’s perpetrator is haunted and unstable. Despite the book’s title, he is not portrayed as a monster but rather as a damaged human being. I’m not usually one for supernatural elements, but they work in the book to illuminate the killer’s mental instability, and to enhance the otherworldliness of the Detroit setting.

And this setting is crucial to the effectiveness of the story.

During her recent appearances in Melbourne, Beukes said Broken Monsters was actually inspired by Detroit, a place where – to use her words – ‘the American dream was born, and where it died.’ Once a global centre of automotive manufacturing and a key plank in America’s ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ during World War II, Detroit became the largest US city ever to declare bankruptcy in 2013. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population declined by 25 per cent. Being in Detroit, Beukes says, is like ‘standing in the ruins of our own civilization.’

However, like her journalist character Jonno, Beukes looks to shed new light on the city. As Jonno tells himself at one point in the novel,

He’s read all that [ruins of the American Dream] shit. It’s all been done. The original stories are mined out, and all that’s left is fool’s gold. Or, more appropriately, Detroit diamonds, which is what locals call the blue glass on the street from broken car windows.

While Beukes doesn’t gloss over the severity of Detroit’s urban decay, she adds balance by portraying the resilience and creativity of the people who continue to live there, in addition to the madness that’s easy to imagine taking hold in such a place.

There’s also a subtext in Broken Monsters about the ugly side of social media and its ubiquity. The killer in Broken Monsters needs Jonno and ‘his’ Internet ‘to set it all loose’ and enable his gruesome legacy to live on. Layla and her friend Cas try to trap men who groom girls in online chat rooms; but Cas is stymied, forever traumatised by online video that shows her being sexually assaulted.

‘Social media means your humiliation can haunt you forever,’ as Beukes put it in Melbourne.

Or as Layla says in the book, ‘This is the way the world is now. Everything is public.’

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (2014) is published in Australia by Harper Collins.

Click here for the podcast of my review for Radio National Books and Arts Daily, Wednesday 17 September 2014.


About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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7 Responses to Review: Broken Monsters

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Angela – Thanks for your honest and informative review. I do enjoy a strong character-driven story. I may wait on this though, as I really am not one for a lot of brutality in novels, nor for a supernatural element. Still, the reality of social media is both fascinating and very sobering. and the setting interests me. Perhaps when I’m ready for a really unsettling book…


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for that, Margot. Broken Monsters is not for the faint-hearted. That said, I also consider myself as having a limited tolerance for graphic violence and yet I didn’t find the violence in this book too much. And normally I can’t stand psycho-killer points of view, yet this one worked for me. Go figure! Never say never, I guess…


  2. therealrene says:

    Follow my Blog? I do reviews on Rock n Roll Autobiographies.


  3. I went to Detroit several years ago with my American sister-in-law to visit some of her extended family – it was the saddest most depressing place I’ve ever visited (and I’ve travelled pretty extensively in the Middle East!). I didn’t notice a heck of a lot of resilience in my SIL’s family – they were just shell-shocked and angry – but I’m glad to know there is some there.

    You’ve made a good case for this book but I’m not sure I’m up for brutal violence just now. I shall add to my list for when I am feeling a bit more resilient myself.


    • angelasavage says:

      Bernadette, I think you would get so much more from this book as someone who has visited Detroit. But I also understand that there are some books you have to feel up to reading (Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy was one I put off reading for years, but now ranks among my favourite books).

      I do hope your SIL’s family are faring better these days. I read recently about Detroit’s inspiring “writers in residence” program, which provides young people with vocational training and writers with free housing. Initiatives like this suggest all is not lost.


  4. kathy d. says:

    Interesting this book, which isn’t my thing, is set in Detroit. I know all about what’s been happening there for years. But my friends are social activists, so they are involved in the movements against foreclosures and evictions, cutting city retirees’ pensions and health benefits; and now, the privatization of water and cutoffs for low-income residents. Even the U.N. has stated that the right to water is a fundamental human right.
    So, while I know the problems, I see the other side of them — people fighting back.
    So, that gives the spirit and the hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon

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