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A few years ago, I read a certain book titled Zoo City on a whim, by a South African writer named Lauren Beukes. Gritty urban fantasy that acts like science fiction and reads like a neo-noir thriller. Clarke Award winner. It knocked my socks off, exceeded expectations, and was one of my favorite books of the year. After that, I’ve kept tabs on Beukes; a book like Zoo City forecasts a career worth paying attention to. Beukes has since switched from the gritty urban-fantasy-cum-science-fiction of her first two books, penning a pair of paranormal thrillers that exchanged South Africa for Chicago and Detroit. The more recent of the two, Broken Monsters, made a splash when it released last fall, and has earned nominations for the International Thriller Award (an refreshingly cross-genre shortlist which also includes Weir’s The Martian) and the Shirley Jackson Award.

Umuzi / Random House Struik - 2014 - Joey Hi-Fi.

Umuzi / Random House Struik – 2014 – Joey Hi-Fi.

Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus—“We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.” Who knew that Detroit’s city motto, a reference to a city-destroying 1805 fire, would become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a city filled with cars, poverty, corruption, and monsters. Detective Gabi Versado could do without the latter, specifically the monster who killed a teenage boy and replaced his legs with the hindquarters of a fawn. And with that, the DPD knows they have a new kind of killer in town. Their job—to find and stop this killer before any more corpse mashups are found. Of course, we the reader know who the killer is early on: Clayton Broom, a lonely, unhappy old artist who’s become home to something more: as Beukes puts it, he’s “all eaten up on the inside by the dreaming thing he let into his head that didn’t mean to get trapped here, drawn out by the raw wound of the man’s mind, blazing like a lamp in one of those border places where the skin of the worlds are permeable.” What Broom sees in his mind-thing is beautiful art, repulsive new forms made by jigsawing human body parts with bits of animal and pieces of clay. And the thing in his head has big plans.

Meanwhile, Gabi’s home life continues to deteriorate; her teenage daughter Layla resents her parents’ divorce, and despite being a soft-spoken “good” kid, she shows a real knack for getting into trouble. Her friend Cas drags her into some dangerous online games, which Layla is more than willing to see all the way through: catfishing a pedophile online, playing the deadly game of cat-and-mouse where social media can hide a person’s darkest secrets in plain sight. And there are others who will cross paths with the Detroit Monster. TK is an “asset reclamation and redistribution” expert, father-figure to the homeless community trying to outlive his own dark past, who breaks into abandoned homes to “reclaim” anything he can donate to the local outreach church and soup kitchen. Jonno is a depressed journalist who came to Detroit to strike it big; with his DJ girlfriend Jen Q, he’s working on Buzzfeed “Top Ten” lists and hopes to revive his career through a series of Youtube videos exploiting Detroit’s status as ruin porn capital of America.

Speaking as a resident of the metro area, though not the 313 proper, Beukes fucking nails this city. Many write Detroit off as a joke: a bankrupt paean to a fading middle-class and the rust belt’s dead dreams of heavy industry. Real Detroit is not acres of ruin porn underpinned by quiet desperation: it’s a city too stubborn and prideful to accept the fate many have already condemned it to. It’s a city transitioning to an unknown future, made grim and hyperbolic by stark contrasts. White suburbanites chow down on Coney dogs or hummus platters in the shadows of Comerica Park or the Fox Theater or TechTown’s cutting-edge start-ups, while around the corner unemployed black men stand in the middle of the street and sell bottled water out of a cooler. There’s the sprawling, multi-million palatial estates in West Bloomfield, just a half-hour cruise up Woodward from where groups of hipsters and homeless families build communes out of derelict bungalows in the heart of an urban prairie. Thirty years ago that prairie was a series of thriving neighborhoods. Sixty years ago it was the American Dream.

Real Detroit isn’t the dead dreams of the past. It’s the dreams alive today. Detroit has died, and from its ashes, Detroit will arise like the phoenix. Resurget Cineribus.

Beukes gets that. Maybe because she could draw so many similarities with her Johannesburg and Detroit: the poverty, the racial divide, the vague social stigma. She writes its people with honesty and respect; she captures its atmosphere, and through some strange process of alchemy transmutes it to text. This novel’s grim horrors come alive, a richly atmospheric melange of suspense and unease. The characterization is plain excellent; all the PoV characters are well-drawn and have their own distinct voice, unique and well-rounded individuals you really get a feel for. Layla in particular takes the cake, stuck in the vulnerable transition phase between being a child with a family and being an adult with a single mother. Having a small group of PoV characters can be a lot to keep track of, especially when they are introduced in the first chapters and may not reappear until later… later, as in, “hundreds of pages later.” I’d get so caught up in Gabi and Layla that I’d forget TK  even existed until he bounced back into the narrative.

Beukes has a habit of calling out pop-culture references, memes, and brand names to the point where I worry it’s distracting or will date the novel. It felt like most of it centered around Layla, which makes perfect sense given her age—it’s a good example of how strong and distinct the characters’ voices are, when Gabi makes a half-jumbled remark about something her daughter would have said. It also plays with Lalya’s theme—the same theme that rears its head when she’s catfishing a pervert, and when Cas’ dark secrets are uncovered. It’s an odd commentary on how social media becomes an inescapable web where you’re never really alone, unaware when voyeuristic others are watching. Layla’s theme is social media vulnerability; Jonno’s is that of social media predation, the unrelenting greed to get some page views and make a fast buck, to redeem himself as a journalist and prove his ex wrong. TK is all about loss and redemption, hiding some bitter secrets. And Clayton’s theme—well, that’s the point where art and madness merge and become the sick symbolism of his meat puppet masterworks. “Art needs an audience,” says Beukes.

Broken Monsters is a sprawling and ambitious novel, and if Beukes were a less-talented author it may have come crashing down, unable to meet its own ambitious goals. Instead, Beukes shows why she’s one of the best authors writing today. Broken Monsters is slick, stylish, and atmospheric, both a suspenseful thriller and a haunting slice of weird horror. It’s an epic of serial killers and the monsters that inhabit them, of the people and families affected by their murders, set at the point where art and dark unknown dreams intersect… a chalk-line door to another realm. The novel’s strengths more than outweight its minor flaws—and for a novel this sprawling, that’s an achievement; Beukes aims big and hits the bulls-eye. While I hope she returns to the style of her earlier Joburg genre novels, if this is the shape of Beukes to come then I will continue to be a rabid fan.

If Broken Monsters sounds at all appealing to you—if you don’t mind some paranormal horror injected straight into the pulsing veins of a tightly-plotted thriller—you owe it to yourself to look into it.

Book Details
Title: Broken Monsters
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Release Date: 2014
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $3.99 (Kindle sale)
ISBN/ASIN: 1941298516 / B00I828856

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