Lauren 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.
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.