This intriguing and original time-travelling thriller is not for the faint-hearted.
Lauren Beukes is known for her genre-bending. Her first novel, Moxyland (2008), was a futuristic cyber-punk story combined with social realism and her second, Zoo City (2010), posited an alternative present of crime and the underworld in South Africa. Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award, among other notable prizes, and is being made into a film.
In The Shining Girls, Beukes takes a familiar element of speculative fiction-writing, time travel, and combines it with a stock in trade of crime fiction – the psychopathic serial killer, though in this case not so serial. The result is an intriguing thriller that leaves the reader reeling under its many paradoxes.
In Depression-era Chicago, 1931, a WWI veteran called Harper Curtis, now a homeless drifter, kills an old woman for a coat after she has given him a message from a man named Bartek. In the pocket of the coat he finds a key.
The key opens the House and starts Curtis on his murdering spree, unlocking and enabling homicidal impulses we assume he already harbours. Inside the House is a man’s dead body, Bartek’s, and assorted items that will turn out to be trophies from women Curtis must kill – in fact, has already killed; the House has its own imperatives. These young women ‘shine’, they are ‘bursting with potential’, and that is enough to make them Curtis’s victims:
He covers his face with his hands, dropping the crutch. He reels backwards and falls heavily onto the bed … His mouth is dry. His mind is full of blood. He can feel the objects thrumming. He can hear the girls’ names inside his skull like the chorus of a hymn.
The House allows Curtis to travel to whatever time he chooses, and to materialise close to his victims. He visits them when they are children, leaves them a token and makes them sinister promises:
‘I’ll see you when you’re all grown-up. Look out for me, OK, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.’
When he returns, he kills them. He makes a couple of mistakes: one victim is no longer ‘shining’ when he comes for her; and when he attempts to manipulate past and future in a different way he finds he can make other errors.
In 1989 he makes his worst mistake. His intended victim – someone he has already given an anachronistic ‘My Little Pony’ to – survives the attack. A few years later the survivor, Kirby Mazrachi, is an intern with the Chicago Sun-Times. She is obsessed with discovering the identity of the man who nearly killed her and she enlists the help of ageing ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez.
The narrative spirals from 1931 to 1993 and back, pausing in each decade with non-chronological visits to potential or actual victims and offering us vignettes of Chicago’s history – including the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, with its mechanical marvels. Meanwhile, Kirby and Curtis keep obsessively hunting each other as time folds back on itself again and again.
The story is told mainly from Curtis’s and Kirby’s points of view; Curtis trudging unquestioningly on the treadmill of the already done that must still be done, and Kirby mostly in the here and now of her linear life. It also takes in the points of view of the other young women, so that although they are not fleshed out to the extent that Kirby is, we know enough about each of them and their lives to be horrified as we watch their inevitable fates approaching:
And the thing with the scary limping guy who so admired her button that he stole it in the middle of a riot became a funny anecdote … She hadn’t thought about any of that for ages. Until now.
He takes advantage of her shock. Slings his arms around her, pulling her close and sliding his knife into her stomach. Right there, in the middle of the street in the rain …
‘Tell me the future,’ he whispers, his breath warm against her ear. ‘Don’t make me read it in your entrails.’
From first meeting, Curtis is a totally unsympathetic character. He is not the expected crime-fiction psycho/sociopath, with deep-seated childhood trauma to partly explain his behaviour, nor is he potentially redeemable like Jeff Lindsay’s rather attractive Dexter. He’s not even very intelligent – unlike Hannibal Lecter. Curtis is rough, physically unattractive, socially inept and unreflecting; there is only one abortive attempt at a relationship between him and another person. There are some brief flashes of humour in the Curtis sections, however, when he first comes face to face with future technology or social attitudes and wonders at them.
Kirby, fortunately, is a sympathetic character. She’s punk and feisty and very determined, with more than a touch of Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but lacking Lisbeth’s own psychopathic tendencies. Dan Velasquez is the ‘normal’ guy, in love with Kirby, reluctant to encourage her dangerous pursuit, but always there when she needs him.
The Shining Girls is not the usual mystery thriller, although it borrows many of the conventions: we know from the beginning who the killer is and who will be killed. The victims are already dead when we first meet them alive. There are mysteries: how Curtis has been set on his murderous path; why it is preordained and inevitable (like serial killing?); why it is the shining women of most potential who are preyed upon – and the mystery of the House is at the metaphorical heart of it all.
None of these mysteries is necessarily solved, leaving readers to wonder themselves about such things as predestination versus free will and the brutal hatred of some men towards exceptional women.
The reader also has to trust that the time lapses work – the segues are sometimes complicated – but that trust is rewarded by the astonishing and brilliantly imagined ending.
Because of its structure, with its complex manipulation of narrative and story time, The Shining Girls is not entirely an easy read, nor is it for the faint-hearted, but it is an original, well-written and exciting novel.
Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls HarperCollins 2013 PB 400pp $29.99
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