Notes on The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Girl with all the Gifts

I read this a while ago and I don’t need to review it, but I’ve got all these notes on the novel that I wanted to share. You can read them individually. I’m have not included outright spoilers until the very last point, but a lot of what I have to say hints at the ending. With that in mind you may not want to read this unless you’ve read the book or watched the movie (although I don’t know if the movie has a different ending. Which would suck. I like this one).

The story: Melanie is a ten-year-old girl held prisoner in a high-security research facility after the world has been decimated by a fungal infection that turns humans into ‘rotting cannibals’ (104). Melanie is a child prodigy, but the only life she knows is one where armed soldiers didn’t strap her to a chair and wheel her into a classroom on a daily basis. She tries to be sweet and friendly to everyone, but sometimes it’s hard and some people scare her. She’s never seen anything outside of this underground prison and she doesn’t realise that it’s because she and the other kids with her are hybrids who have been infected with the fungus but somehow retained their intelligence and capacity for normal human interaction. They’re being studied in the hope of finding a cure, but when the facility is attacked, Melanie escapes with her teacher Miss Justineau, the head research scientist, and two soldiers.


It has been a strange, awkward experience to find myself in love with a zombie novel. I’d relegated the genre to pure entertainment and did not expect the depth of feeling or admiration for craft that I found in The Girl with all the Gifts. I expected only to be thrilled, not moved and intellectually engaged too. The characters are remarkably well-written and you care for them every step of the way as they grapple with the idea of who and what they are in an apocalypse. I love the way their motivations clash and converge to drive the story forward. Melanie, in particular, isn’t an ordinary narrator but a post-human child in existential crisis, discovering a dying world world at the same time as she realises she’s one of the creatures who ended it. Her point of view is fresh and fascinating.


Zombies are humanity’s death sentence. They’re almost always inescapable and they never just affect the protagonists; they affect the whole world. Even if a cure is found, the way infection spreads so easily, rapidly and violently always seems to suggest that it’s over no matter what. One infected person hidden away somewhere can easily start the process all over again. They’re an extinction event for intelligent life.

The Girl with all the Gifts shifts that narrative. It points out the ways in which life on Earth is already vile and we’re never going to do anything to solve the problems we’ve created for ourselves and the planet. Zombies – or ‘hungries’, in this case – might be monsters, but we’re worse. What drove this point home is how despicable people in the novel can be, compared to the hungries. When everything goes to shit, it’s not because of hungries (although they’re obviously part of it) but because of the Junkers:

Survivalists who’ve forgotten how to do anything else besides survive. Parasites and scavengers […]. They don’t build, or preserve. They just stay alive. And their ruthlessly patriarchal structures reduce women to pack animals or breeding stock.

If that’s humanity’s last, best hope, then despair might actually be preferable. (216)

Then there are people like Dr Caldwell, whose dedication to finding a cure makes her just as abominable as the hungries. And Private Gallagher secretly wants to stay at the research facility because his family are violent drunks:

Private Kieran Gallagher knows all about monsters, because he comes from a family in which monsters predominate. Or maybe it’s just that his family was more given than most to letting its monsters come out and sniff the air.

The key that let them out was always the same: bootleg vodka […]

His father, and his brother Steve, and his cousin Jackie looked like normal human beings and even sometimes acted like them, but most of the time they veered between two extremes: reckless violence when they were drinking, and comatose somnolence when the drink wore off. (150)

Note how much their behaviour resembles the hungries’ in the way they’re either violent or inert. And as a result, Gallagher has to ask: which is he more afraid of? Dying out here, or going home? They’ve both got their terrors, about equally vivid in his mind. (151)

If anything, the fungus is a cure for the problem of humanity. And now that the human population no longer has the numbers to be harmful, society is stagnant, as Miss Justineau notes about the research facility where the story begins: ‘This isn’t life. It’s something that’s playing out in its own self-contained subroutine’ (26).

Life only goes on, forcing its way back in, when the hungries break through the perimeter fence. Ironically, it’s only through them that anything good can happen. They set the plot in motion and revitalise life, rather than ending it (well, figuratively; there’s obviously a massive bodycount).


That said, the story still hinges on Melanie staying alive, and that doesn’t happen because of the hungries – it happens because of Miss Justineau. And she saves Melanie because she thinks of her as a human being. She disregards what everyone else has told her about the kids, defies all the warnings, and acts based on what she sees: intelligence, kindness, enthusiasm, wonder, love.

Dr Caldwell, on the other hand, ‘only sees what’s at the bottom of her test tubes’ (293) and she’d destroy the world in her effort to save it.


Melanie isn’t just a person but the best kind of person. Besides the fact that, like most hybrids, she’s stronger and faster than humans, she is ‘the girl with all the gifts’ because she has all the gifts that humanity prides itself on: love, compassion, curiosity, self-reflection, intelligence, a longing to engage with the world. And she wants to spread that around. What matters is that her love and optimism are infectious, not her bite, and she longs to learn and connect. She even devises a secret language to use with the other kids (although she doesn’t have a chance to teach it to them). The novel frequently reflects on language, words, meaning and communication. These things are the basis of civilisation and of civilised existence. At which Melanie excels but humans have failed.


Melanie can still be monstrous though; the book doesn’t try to make her cute. However, she’s never violent without reflection or remorse, and she’s usually only violent when defending the people she cares about. Of course she’s got an overwhelming need to consume flesh, but, 1. This is economical, because she can survive on very little and doesn’t even need water, and 2. The way she deals with this is important. Unlike hungries, she can control her urges, and unlike many humans she makes an effort to do so because she respects and cares about other people. When she goes on the run with Miss Justineau, Parks, Dr Caldwell and Gallagher, and realises what she is, she’s deeply concerned about hurting one of them. Especially Miss Justineau. Even Dr Caldwell. So she tries her hardest not to. And eventually she learns to manage her impulses. She doesn’t just give up because it’s ‘uncontrollable’ or because it’s ‘in her nature’. She deals with it so that she doesn’t hurt anyone by losing control. And that’s what makes her better than human.


One of my favourite character quotes is for Dr Caldwell, the novel’s antagonist: ‘In a world of rust, she comes up stainless steel’ (49). Which sounds cool, but also emphasises her cold, clinical nature. If Melanie is a compelling protagonist because she loves life and strives to connect with others, and Miss Justineau is a hero because she sees and responds to the children’s humanity, Caldwell is the antagonist because she can’t see Melanie and the other hungry kids as people and refuses to communicate with them as such. After failing to dissect Melanie, Caldwell wants to keep her alive only as a research specimen that Caldwell feels she owns. In this, Caldwell represents so much of what’s wrong with the humans. That tendency to dehumanise. To see others in terms of function and exploit them as such. To use people as a means to a goal. To refuse communication. Which is what Caldwell has done, in her search for a cure:

If the road to knowledge was paved with dead children – which at some times and in some places it has been – she’d still walk it and absolve herself afterwards. What other choice would she have? Everything she values is at the end of that road. (359)

This sounds a bit like a criticism of relentless scientific pursuit, given that Caldwell is the scientist in the group, but I think it’s more about Caldwell’s narrow-minded cruelty in the pursuit of a single goal. A goal she cannot re-evaluate when faced with the reality of the children. Early on in the novel, she dissects two hungry children without anaesthetic (it doesn’t work on them), cutting their vocal cords so they can’t make a noise. And the children remain alive after they’ve been cut up in ways that would kill a human.

It’s telling that when the hungries attack, Caldwell is injured and literally begins the journey that takes up the rest of the novel with blood on her hands. Her own blood. And those wounds are painful and incapacitating, as if to get blood on your hands is inevitably to hurt yourself.

Despite all this, Caldwell isn’t a perfectly horrible villain. You can understand where she’s coming from and even admire her work ethic, and I like that her character is rounded in that way. Pure evil is infuriating to read.


Caldwell gets criticised for playing god, and God – the biblical version – gets mentioned a lot. Zeus and a few others come up too. They’re all criticised for their cruelty, stupidity or negligence. Notably, Melanie idolises Miss Justineau as a god-like figure too, and it’s easy to understand why, but we get to see Justineau as the flawed and fallible human she is. Suggesting that our gods, if they exist at all, were never what we wanted them to be.


This quote, about Miss Justineau’s decision to protect Melanie:

some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl, ‘I’m here for you,’ the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. (66)

I like this because it shows us how Miss Justineau wasn’t just automatically a strong hero figure who was always going to be there for Melanie because it was the right thing to do. She is not static. If she hadn’t said anything, she might have let Caroline Caldwell kill Melanie simply because it’s easier and safer to do nothing. But by voicing that idea of compassion and morality, she makes herself into the person she needs to be for the story to continue.

I like this one too:

she’s turned her back on something inside herself, and Melanie is the sign of that – the anti-Isaac she snatched from the fire to prove to God that he doesn’t always get to call the shots.

Fuck you Caroline. (116)

And I like that Justineau isn’t always resolute about her actions:

Why? Why did she do that? (25)

 

If she hadn’t talked to the kids about death that day. If she hadn’t read them ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, and if they hadn’t asked what being dead was like, then she wouldn’t have stroked Melanie’s hair and none of this would have happened. She wouldn’t have made a promise she couldn’t keep and couldn’t walk away from. She could be as selfish as she’s always been, and forgive herself the way everybody else does, and wake up every day as clean as if she’d just been born. (152)


The book isn’t all violence and existentialist crises. I was delighted by this little moment from Sergeant Parks:

Parks lights the range with a spark struck from a tinderbox – an honest-to-God tinderbox; that has to be centuries old – produced from his pocket with something suspiciously like a flourish. (202)

It’s the last bit that makes it perfect: ‘something suspiciously like a flourish’. Parks is never just that hardheaded soldier type who only sees the world in terms of military objectives (a character type I can’t stand), even though that’s the impression he’s given to Justineau. Here we see the characters taking a much-needed break (giving us a breather too), and we get this hint of how much we might like Parks if we saw him in another life. That’s good writing – giving us the sense that these characters are people beyond the story we see them in.


One last point, and it has a SPOILER for the ending:

In the book, Melanie is blonde, blue-eyed and ‘bone-white’ (26). For the 2016 movie they cast a black actor (Sennia Nanua), which I would argue is essential, and not only because the aesthetic of such unnervingly pale skin would certainly have jarred with the likeability of her character. It’s necessary because Melanie becomes the leader of a group of hungry children and begins the process of teaching them a formalised language. You can assume that once this group is sufficiently organised, she’s going to find other kids. And since she’d be one of very, very few educated hungry kids, if there are any others in the world at all, she may be the only one forming an educated society. Melanie is, essentially, the architect of a new world. And for that reason, it’s very, very important that she not look … Aryan.

Or even white. Of course, race probably would not matter in whatever world they build, but it’s still significant for readers and viewers now.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why they chose a white actress (Gemma Arterton) to play Miss Justineau, who is black in the book. A case of the producers worrying about having too many black leads on screen? Oh the horror …

Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

finnegansfield_storyfull2

The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Thursdays … The Pride of Strathmoor

Aaand I’m home alone, late at night, watching horror to find something for today’s short film post. As with yesterday’s short story recommendation, I found what I was looking for in the American gothic genre. The Pride of Strathmoor is creepy as fuck, not so much because of the story, but because of the deeply unsettling animation and the whispered narration. That voice sounds so very … close.

Please note that this short film may cause seizures if you’re sensitive to flashing/flickering content.

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

Under Ground by S.L. Grey

Under Ground hbTitle: Under Ground
Author:
S.L. Grey
Publisher: 
Pan Macmillan
Published:
 July 2015 (UK); August 2015 (SA and Commonwealth
Genre: 
horror, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

The world freaks out over a deadly new super-virus, and when the first confirmed cases hit the US, five families rush to their condos in The Sanctum – a luxury survival bunker situated fifty feet underground in rural Maine. The Sanctum is designed to be self-sustaining, stylish and comfortable. Besides offering fresh food, clean air and water, sanitation and maximum security, it also has a gym, medical bay and recreation room, as well as TV and internet access so the residents can stay in contact with the outside world (and watch the apocalypse go down) for as long as possible.

In theory it’s a brilliant idea. For the owner, Greg Fuller, it sounds like a fantastic way to make a ton of cash off the rich and paranoid. For the few with the cash to buy in, it’s not only a good bet for survival but an opportunity to avoid the apocalypse altogether.

But it also means getting locked up with paranoid strangers in a confined, sterile space (where everything is obviously going to go to shit), and a lot depends on who those people are and how they handle the situation. James and Victoria Maddox are a pair of yuppies with marriage issues who rock up in designer clothes, carting Cristal and crates of gourmet dog food for their shih tzu. Cait, an au pair, is supposed to fly home to Joburg, but all the flights get cancelled and her boss, Tyson, basically kidnaps her by dragging her along to The Sanctum without even telling her where they’re going. It’s a blessing for Tyson’s daughter Sarita, at least: her mother died recently and Cait’s been caring for her while her father becomes increasingly distant. Jae is a gamer who, besides having to deal with lagging wifi, is worried about his mother’s health problems and the fact that his father almost never leaves the house. And then there are the Guthries – the racist, fanatically religious, gun-toting rednecks…

Of course everyone arrives at a frightening, high-pressure time, and their paranoia is particularly apparent when the final family arrives late with a sickly old woman whose presence sparks fears of infection. And once they’re settled, it becomes obvious that the owner, Greg, has been cutting corners and The Sanctum isn’t quite the haven they paid for.

Then a body is found, and everyone faces the prospect of being locked in a bunker with a murderer who could pick them off one by one.

I really like the way the novel uses this fairly simple premise of a locked-rom mystery to explore all the complex ways in which the characters and their relationships shift or shatter under the pressure. It’s why I asked Louis Greenberg for a guest post on the characters he and Sarah Lotz chose for The Sanctum, and it’s something I wanted to expand on in this review.

As always in these sorts of stories, you’ve got a couple of decent, sane people who mostly get along and try their best to handle a difficult situation. There’s one in each family and they are our POV characters (the chapters alternate between them). There are a few weak people who, to the cold-hearted, will look like a liability. There are a couple of idiots and assholes who whine or put others at risk with their histrionics. And then there’s the real trouble – the Guthries.

They represent a whole package of threats – racial violence, religious fanaticism, sexual assault, physical violence. Father, Cam and son, Brett were not happy about having to hand over all their guns after arrival, and everyone wonders if they’re still hiding a few. They treat the dilemma like a combat situation, arming themselves with knives and standing guard as if they were soldiers. Brett unabashedly refers to Jae as “the chink” (he’s half Korean) and stares at Cait with such naked lust that she’s afraid of running into him alone. At one point, as she furiously debates whether or not it’s safe to use the swimming pool, she reflects on how she’s never had the luxury of worrying about monsters because real men like Brett have always been the bigger threat. Bonnie Guthrie went into some kind of Christian overdrive after Cam stole her inheritance to buy into The Sanctum (he doesn’t take kindly to criticism from women, so now she just prays more), and she’s worried about the unholy influences the neighbours might have on her daughter Gina (the only decent person among them).

The Guthries are the worst of neighbours and the most hateful of characters (except for Gina), but that also makes them crucial to the plot, simply because they’re so provocative. It’s not just about the rednecks vs the rest though; the novel really digs into the way all sorts of tension plays out between the characters. There’s the sexual tension of a budding relationship, a secret affair, and the desperate sex borne of fear and loneliness. Wealthier characters lord it over others, or are assumed to. Bullies like Brett and Cam might be obvious threats, but it gives their victims suspicious motives for retaliation too.

In this claustrophobic space where survival suddenly depends on the relationships you have with the people around you, all the little details of human interaction have ripple effects – an act of kindness, a rude word, a glance that lasts too long. What I enjoyed most about the novel is the way this all plays out while conditions in The Sanctum get progressively worse. It’s not quite what I’d call horror (although it definitely would be if I were actually locked up there), but it’s exactly the kind of psychological thriller I love to get wrapped up in.

I never guessed who the murderer was though, and that’s another plus. Mystery novels have to work pretty hard to keep their secrets hidden, and this one managed to surprise me. I think the ending might divide readers, but I liked that it made me stop to think about the book and go back to look for the details I’d missed.

So, overall, Under Ground is a gripping, well-written thriller from S.L. Grey. These guys know how to write characters and make them suffer in all the right ways.

Guest Post: Louis Greenberg on who to trap in locked-room horror

slgrey-ug-photo

S.L. Grey is the collaboration between SA authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. They published their first horror novel, The Mallin 2011 and followed it up with The Ward (2012) and The New Girl (2013) – a collection that became known as the Downside. Now they’re trying out a different style of horror in Under Ground – a locked-room mystery set in a luxury survival bunker called the Sanctum.

It’s a tense thriller that relies, not on gore or otherworldly monsters, but on the ways in which different kinds of people clash in a confined, sterile space. I love stories that exploit the most interesting aspects of their characters in tough situations and strained relationships, so I asked Louis to about how he and Sarah chose the characters who populate the Sanctum and what they hoped those people would bring to the story.

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Under Ground was always going to be S.L. Grey’s stab at Agatha Christie. With maybe a bit of Cluedo thrown in. I grew up watching Christie movies: the elegant glamour of Peter Ustinov and Lauren Bacall and Elizabeth Taylor. Murder of the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack’d terrified me and Evil Under the Sun and Death on the Nile strangely titillated me. When Sarah and I settled on locked-room mystery for our fourth novel together, we knew it would involve a similar large cast interacting against the rather less exotic backdrop we came up with.

Under Ground hbClassic locked-room mysteries are all about the inevitable conflict between different types of people, and they use both the characters’ assumptions about one another and the reader’s assumptions about the characters to create dramatic surprises. Under Ground was our homage to the form. It involves a group of fairly disparate people all rushing to The Sanctum, an ostensibly luxurious survival bunker, to escape a devastating super-virus.

When we started plotting the novel, we assembled a cast of around thirty characters, but soon realised that would be unwieldy and culled several before they even got into the story. There were a few more characters we wrote into our early drafts, fully imagined and with their own plot arcs, who also had to disappear (along with Michael Bay-style helicopter flights and other cut scenes better not spoken of).

We eventually levelled off at five families making it to their apartments in The Sanctum and two individuals who help run the place. We knew that we’d tread a fine line between strong, differentiated characterisation and stereotype in this locked-room structure. Especially with a plot that demanded all-out action pacing, there wasn’t much space to develop characters with internal monologue or flashbacks or much humanising detail. How they react to the crisis at hand is all that matters to the story. As much as we could, we subtly modified some of the characters, and allowed them to act and react in surprising ways that might either subvert or confirm expectations.

Under Ground pbWithout giving too much away, some characters experience a crisis of faith or ideology, while others are forced to push themselves beyond their predestined limits, some crack under the pressure, some blossom. One of the fun things about imagining life-threatening crises is putting yourself into characters’ position and wondering how you might react – this is something that’s entertained us through all our novels: putting normal people into abnormal situations. Would you become a hero, would you try to keep your head down, would you take advantage of others’ weaknesses?

In choosing our character set, we also selected characters who would create good tension when played off against each other. Tension between rich people and poorer people; between people who consider themselves the Chosen – whether by nationality, religion or gender – and those they think don’t belong; tension between leaders and followers; between outsiders and insiders; and of course a bit of complicated sexual tension. This led to a fairly wide variety of inhabitants and it was fun to play these different combinations off against each other.

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Thanks so much for your time and insight Louis!

Under Ground was published in the UK in July, and will hit SA and the Commonwealth in August. If you’re keen to splurge on a hardcover, this one has a gorgeous debossed black-on-black spine:

UG debossed

I’ve got a review of Under Ground in the works, so check back later this week!

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.