|THE SHINING GIRLS
Lauren Beukes (laurenbeukes.com)
When Harper Curtis murders an old woman, he finds the key to a house to which he instinctively knows the way. In the bedroom of the house he finds the names of girls scratched on the walls next to mementoes and trophies, threads linking them together in an intricate web. Harper is a murderer, and these are his shining girls, spread across time, awaiting his visit. Kirby Mazrachi is one of these girls, the only one to survive Harper’s attack. Obsessed with her assailant, Kirby begins to look for similar cases and discovers the impossible: she was attacked by a man who cannot possibly exist. Her investigations bring her to the killer’s attention, and now Harper is back to complete the circle.
I’m always on the lookout for novels that bring a fresh new perspective to often tired old genres. In the case of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, the tired old genre is the serial killer novel; the biggest problem with her fresh perspective – a time travelling serial killer – is that it’s extremely difficult to pull off well and very easy to mess up completely. Fortunately for us readers, Beukes has taken the road less-travelled and produced a fresh-voiced crime/science fiction crossover that is, to put it succinctly, stunning.
The action takes place in and around the city of Chicago, and spans various periods from 1931 to 1993. Beukes, a native South African, captures the soul of the city perfectly and makes it one of the few constants, one of the few things we can rely on not to shift beneath our feet, in an otherwise twisted and ever-surprising narrative. Harper Curtis, the antagonist of the piece, and in some ways its central character, is a nasty piece of work, a man driven by the House, or more correctly, by the list and the trophies he finds in the bedroom of that house. His nemesis, the young Kirby, is damaged and obsessed, determined to find the man who tried to kill her and exact her revenge, whatever the cost. At times extremely unlikeable, Kirby still gives the reader someone to rally behind, if only because she is a better alternative than the despicable Harper upon whom to shower our sympathies.
The time travel aspects of the novel are introduced early in the story, so it is immediately obvious that this is no straightforward serial killer novel. As the story progresses, it becomes clear just how many strands there are to this narrative, and how difficult it must have been to get on paper without any massive holes in the various timelines or logic. As a result, later chapters are full of Easter Eggs and pleasant surprises for the careful and attentive reader. It’s easy to see that plotting was a long and laborious process, but it pays off in spades: the reader is never sure what to expect next, and right down to the book’s epilogue, Beukes manages to hold secrets back from us that, when slotted into place, complete the picture as neatly as the final, central piece of any jigsaw puzzle.
The Shining Girls is more than just cleverness and gimmicks, though. The time travel aspects serve the central storyline, rather than the other way around. At its core, the novel is a crime thriller and while the time travel adds an extra – if you’ll pardon the pun – dimension to the overall experience, it still provides a satisfying read for fans of the serial killer genre. With the introduction of sportswriter Dan, Beukes has also created the possibility, should she wish to hang around the thriller scene for awhile, of an on-going series with a recurring character (and let’s face it, stranger things have happened).
Best known in certain circles for her niche novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, Beukes finally stretches her wings for what should be her breakout work. The result is one of the best novels you’re likely to read this year, in any genre. Careful plotting combined with pitch-perfect characterisation, edge-of-the-seat tension and the feeling that anything could happen next (or, in fact, may well have happened already) combine to keep the reader turning pages long past bedtime, or their bus stop, or…well, you get the idea. The Shining Girls has been one of my most anticipated novels of the year so far. It’s definitely one that has been worth the wait. I can’t recommend it highly enough.