My natural preference in fiction is for first or third person point of views, limited but allowing you to build up quite an in-depth picture of your narrator (and even seem some of their own blind spots). If you were to ask me ‘in the abstract’, without any examples, I would say that I don’t like books where the author can hop from one head into another, emit omniscient asides and foreshadow like billy-ho with complete nonchalance. It feels like lazy writing, I’d tell myself, it interrupts the flow and confuses me.
Yet here I am about to extol the virtues of two books which do precisely that. Which goes to show that rules are made to be broken and that I can be won over to just about anything by good writing.
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters
This is marketed as a crime thriller, but, as is so frequently the case with Lauren Beukes, it defies any genre description. It has all the elements of a police procedural, albeit one of unnerving grittiness and despair, but also swerves into YA, horror and fantasy territory. All areas I usually stay away from, but in Beukes’ wildly inventive mind and confident hands, it works. She moves effortlessly from one interpretation of events to another, equally pitch-perfect as a teenager, a stressed female officer, a homeless drifter or journalist despising himself for writing nothing better than lists of Top Tens for second-rate websites, all in a lively, exuberant language on the brink of change.
This is a story revealing all our anxieties about the digital age and urban decay. It’s set in the almost post-apocalyptic landscape of Detroit, now fallen victim to fans of ruin porn and graffiti, hipsters trying to ‘get’ the edginess of the city and to further their careers, scavengers making their way into repossessed houses.
Detective Gabi Vesado has seen a lot of bodies in her time with the Detroit police force, even children’s bodies, but this one is shocking even by her standards. A boy cut in half, with deer legs somehow fused to him. Unfortunately, this is but the start of a sinister series of killings, all arranged artistically, as if to mimic contemporary art installations. Beukes is wonderful at mocking the pretensions of much modern art, but she also takes us into the murderer’s mind – which, disconcertingly, is the mind of an artist taken to extreme. An obsession with beauty and creating new paradigms, opening the door to a new consciousness, which sometimes makes him the most relatable character in the book (at least, to a writer/artist/creative person). He may be a monster, but he’s a broken one (I never thought I’d say this about a serial killer).
There are plenty more quirky and very well-drawn characters: Gabi’s teenage daughter Layla, who engages in dangerous games of online pedophile baiting with her friend Cas; Cas herself, who seems cynical beyond her years, perhaps discussing a much deeper vulnerability; the failed journalist Jonno who dreams of going viral with his online videos, helped by his DJ girlfriend with the wild dreadlocks; and homeless TK, who only wants to survive, but cannot sit by idly while his friend is being hurt. Each of these (and a few others I’m not mentioning here for lack of space) have a complete back story, although most of it remains hidden from us like an iceberg.
I’m a little tired of the serial killer trop, or of graphic descriptions of violence (although, to be fair, in this book it is more about the reaction of the people who get to see the violence), but this book is about so much more than that. Beukes almost crams in too much: psychology of teens and of loners, social commentary about poverty and abandonment of society’s most fragile members, the Internet as a place we can project the myths we tell about ourselves, but also a place where our own stories can be used against us, herd instinct and our love of conspiracy theories, media frenzy about the more sensationalist aspects of crime. Throughout, the author transports us into a vivid yet surreal world, a world of nightmares and hallucinations, where we lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
Just as an aside: I’ve included all three covers for the book – let me know which one you prefer. I think the South African one is the most beautiful, though perhaps a bit too explicit.
Ann Patchett: Bel Canto
The blurb itself promises an unusual book, difficult to pin down in terms of degree of seriousness:
In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
In this house under siege – and the siege extends to weeks rather than days – a kind of truce develops and the most unlikely of love stories spring up, while hope and despair alternate in rapid succession. Ann Patchett is a delightful mix of 19th century elegance and 21st century knowingness in this book. I loved her brand of suave humour, gracious omniscience and flitting around from one character to another, observing all human foibles but also all human aspiration for something grander, more ennobling – such as music. The opera singer, the Japanese industrialist, the talented translator, the young terrorists who have just left their native village, the idealistic priest, the hardened paramilitary leader who still has a heart hidden somewhere: these are not stereotypes, but beautifully rounded characters described with tenderness but also irony. This ‘mature and knowing narrator’ POV, filled with sly observations, reminds me of Jane Austen. Patchett has an uncanny ability to describe someone (and their way of thinking) in just a few sentences.
The international negotiator, Messner: ‘The Swiss never take sides. We are only on the side of the Swiss.’
The doctor who tries not to draw attention to himself and his profession: ‘The conclusion was that no doctors were present. But that wasn’t true. Dr. Gomez was lying in the back… and his wife was stabbing him sharply in the ribs with two red lacquered fingernails. He had given up his practice years ago to become a hospital administrator. When was the last time he had sewn a man up?.. He was probably no more qualified to do a decent job than his wife, who at least kept a canvas of petit point going all the time. Without taking a single stitch he saw how the whole thing would unravel: there would be an infection, certainly; they would not bring in the necessary antibiotics; later the wound would have to opened, drained, resewn… It would not go well. People would blame him.’
The kitchen scene of cooking coq sans vin, without allowing the hostages access to knives, is one of the funniest scenes:
Thibault, the French ambassador, one of the few among the hostages who knows how to cook, is manning the kitchen. He is trying to show the terrorists how to peel an aubergine but has forgotten that he is not allowed to handle knives. (Apologies for hte choppiness and lack of clarity in what follows: I’m skipping big chunks of text here in an effort to convey the flavour of the scene).
Thibault did not understand what he had done. He thought at first Beatriz [one of the captors] was angry that he had corrected the boy on his peeling, He thought the problem was with the eggplant, and so he laid the eggplant down first and then the knife. […]
‘Go ahead,’ Ishmael said, taking out his own gun and pointing it at the Ambassador. ‘I’ll shoot you, too, if I have to. Show me how to peel an eggplant, I’ve shot men over less than an eggplant.’ […]
What would Edith say when she heard he had been shot over an eggplant or turning on the television? If he was going to die he had hoped for a little bit of honor in his death.
‘Well,’ Ruben said, wiping his face with a dishtowel. ‘Nothing around here is a small event.’ […]
‘No one is leaving! Dinner for fifty-eight, is that what they expect? I will not lose one pair of hands, even if the hands belong to the very valuable translator… May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?’ […]
‘Why does he get to cook the onions?’ Beatriz said. ‘They’re my onions. And I won’t wash the chickens because that does not involve a knife. I was only sent in here to work the knives.’
‘I will kill her,’ Thibault said in weary French.