The Shining Girls just got bumped to the top of my TBR pile!
(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program. Also, trigger warning for sexual assault.)
There’s a monster loose in Detroit. A whole lot of them, actually.
First and foremost is the so-called “Detroit Monster,” whose story forms the backbone of Broken Monsters: The sick you-know-what leaving a trail of dead bodies disguised as art installations across the city, starting with an eleven-year-old boy named Daveyton Lafonte. From the navel up, the killer fused his mutilated body onto the lower portion of a deer’s using meat glue. (Google it.)
But there’s also Philip Low, the middle-aged electrical engineer with the undeservedly kind face, who trolls the ‘net for young girls using the pseudonym “VelvetBoy”; Jonno, a “citizen journalist” from New York City, who exploits tragedy for page hits under the guise of journalistic integrity; and the adolescent boys of Hines High School, who think nothing of sharing a video of their classmate’s sexual assault – and then re-enacting the trauma for laughs.
The events in Broken Monsters unfold over the course of one chilly week in November, told from multiple perspectives: Detective Gabriella (“Gabi”) Versado, the Detroit Detective charged with leading the investigation into Davey’s murder; Gabi’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Layla; Jonno, who starts out covering the Detroit art scene but soon finds himself embroiled in the Detroit Monster’s master plot; Thomas “TK” Keen, a homeless ex-con who just wants to keep his adopted family safe; and Clayton Broom, a washed-up artist and stalker of women. (Well, one woman anyway: Louanne, with whom he had a one-night stand some three years ago.)
There’s quite a bit to savor here. First, the landscape: Set in Detroit, the beleaguered city is a character unto itself. From entire blocks of boarded-up homes to looted strip clubs and abandoned buildings reimagined as giant “Dream House” art projects, Beukes takes us well beyond the realm of “ruins porn.” Somewhat fittingly, the story’s climax/showdown takes place in the husk of what once was an auto factory, complete with creepy, tooth-like robot arms, basements long since flooded, and abandoned opulence. Most importantly, she captures the humanity of the people who still call this city home: people who struggle to survive in the face of an economic system that threatens to eat them alive.
Ghosts haunt the city, its buildings, the residents: “ghosts of the industries on top of ghosts of the natives – we’ve got thousands of years of ghosts here.” (page 185) The Detroit Monster’s “ghost doors” seemingly offer a means of escape.
I also love Beukes’s skillful use of pop culture and current events to augment the story. Exhibits A through F: Facebook’s desperately tedious and redundant process for deleting accounts. YouTube’s notoriously sexist policy re: videos and images that depict breastfeeding. The sexual wasteland that is SnapChat (or SpinChat as it’s called here). Layla and Cas’s “To Catch a Predator”-style sting. Trayvon Martin and Renisha Brown. The Flying Spaghetti Monster!
That said, it feels like Broken Monsters is missing that little, indefinable “something.” I think the blending of suspense/crime fiction and fantasy just didn’t sit well with me. For most of the book’s 435 pages, I read the killer as some poor schmuck with an undiagnosed/untreated mental illness (characterized primarily by auditory and visual hallucinations). Suddenly, in the last fifty pages or so, other people with whom he’s come into contact begin having similar experiences: Tattoos come to life. Glass birds take flight. Corpses reanimate. Doors to other dimensions swing open. And so on and so forth. The shift from reality to fantasy seemed to happen so suddenly that I found it jarring. Unsatisfying. And this comes from someone who reads a ton of Stephen King.
I actually found the subplots infinitely more interesting than the hunt for the serial killer. In Jonno’s rush to the top at any expense, we have a searing indictment of media sensationalism. Jonno doesn’t care who he hurts as long as he gets the scoop on the next big story. And indeed, he doesn’t even seem to care if something is news, just as long as it attracts ye ole eyeballs.
And Layla? She’s the real badass of the story. From exposing an internet pedophile to holding her peers accountable for their perpetuation of rape culture, I found myself on Team Layla from the get-go. And with Cas, Beukes puts a very real, very relateable face on the survivors of sexual assault in a digital age.
The interrogation of racism and rape culture makes Broken Monsters an especially engaging read.
The diversity of characters is also refreshing. Layla is an Afro-Latina, with a black father and Latina mother. TK is African-American, and his best friend Ramon is Latino. Like Layla, classmate Travis comes from a biracial household. (Etc.)
Though the ARC weighs in at a hefty 435 pages, I never found myself bored, or my attention wandering. While there are some aspects of the story that failed to resonate with me, Beukes’s writing style is mesmerizing. This is my first Beukes novel, but it won’t be my last: The Shining Girls has just been bumped to the top of my TBR pile.