Title: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: review copy published by Mulholland Books; originally published by Umuzi
Published: 15 April 2013 by Umuzi; review edition published 4 June 2013 by Mulholland
Genre: fantasy, science fantasy, crime thriller, historical
Source: review copy via NetGalley
Kirby is a bright girl bursting with life, despite her troubled childhood with a single mother whose “default state of being is absent” and the constant upheavals as they move from one home to another. It Kirby’s sense of promise, the fact that she’s a “shining girl”, that draws Harper Curtis to her. He visits her for the first time when she’s six years old. He gives her a My Little Pony that hasn’t been invented yet. Fifteen years later he returns to kill her in a brutal attack, as he does with all the shining girls.
Harper is a serial killer travelling through time in the city of Chicago, drawn to girls who ‘shine’ with potential and determination. It’s his destiny to snuff their lives out. It’s the House that drives him. He was living in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Depression-era Chicago when fate delivers him a key that unlocks a seemingly abandoned house. Inside is a room full of objects and women’s names written on the wall in Harper’s own handwriting. The names of the shining girls. The objects are what will lead him to them, and Harper knows that he has to find them and kill them.
But he didn’t kill Kirby. Four years after his attack, she starts tracking him down. She joins the Chicago Sun Times as an intern for Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her case. He’s writes for the sports desk now, but Kirby will do whatever she can to find the man who nearly killed her, even if she has to waste time compiling baseball scores.
Kirby gets everything she needs, but Harper still presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. He started killing in 1931, and with the House he can leap across the decades before returning to his own time, untraceable. Any evidence he leaves behind offers only impossible conclusions, allowing him to murder the girls unhindered.
The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.
Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.
Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.
It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.
How they came together in the House, however, remains a mystery. The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates. There are hints and ideas that seem to lead to understanding but never quite get there, leaving the reader pondering the possibilities. There is no how and why for the House. We don’t know how it enables time travel, how it came into being, or why it is focused on killing the shining girls. It’s not clear what exactly motivates Harper either, even though we spend so much time in his head. He avoids taking responsibility for his acts, blaming his victims for shining:
“It’s not my fault, sweetheart,” he says, “It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”
There’s also a sense in which he’s driven to do what he does by the objects, the House itself and the time paradox it’s entwined him in. The objects call to him and shine in ways that show him what to use and when.
He tells himself he is only looking around, but he knows one of his girls is here. He always does. It’s the same tug in his stomach that brought him to the House. That jolt of recognition when he walks into someplace he’s meant to be. He knows it when he sees the tokens that match the ones in the room. It is a game. To find them through different times and places. It’s a destiny he’s writing for them. Inevitably, they’re waiting for him.
The force exerted on him by the House and the object sometimes makes him uncomfortable, hurts him even, suggesting that he’s being coerced. He certainly doesn’t choose any of the victims himself; they’ve already been chosen and he’s just drawn to them. On a personal level though, Harper is a sadistic psychopath. It’s obvious that he wants to kill and takes a perverse pleasure in contacting his victims as children and then murdering them as adults, destroying the potential that makes them shine.
I will definitely be in the minority here, but Harper is my favourite character. Which isn’t to say I like him – he’s utterly despicable and I like all the other characters a lot more, with the possible exception of a hipster who wants to film Kirby having sex with him so that she can “reclaim what happened to [her]”. Harper disgusts me, but I love a good villain. He’s not especially smart, but he has an intuitive understanding of the House and eschews all gasping disbelief that characters typically go through when fantasy invades reality. When he steps into the House he claims his destiny as if slipping into a perfectly tailored suit. The way Harper hunts and kills the shining girls is so sick and brutal that I find him fascinating and repulsive in equal parts.
The shining girls are wonderful characters too, by virtue of the qualities that make them ‘shine’. Their roles are small, but they would be strong enough to drive an entire novel themselves. Each of them shows a rare sense of determination, typically in defiance of the racial and sexual discrimination prevalent in Chicago across the decades. Zora is a young black woman doing hard manual labour in a shipping yard to support her four children after losing her husband to war. Alice is a transsexual; Willie a lesbian. Some of them shine because of the difference they make in society. Margot arranges safe abortions for girls and women who can’t afford them. Jin-Sook is a social worker changing lives in black communities. Others shine because of their talents. Willie is a promising architect who fought her way into the field at a time when women weren’t normally given such jobs. Mysha is a brilliant botanist.
What makes Kirby shine seems to be something a bit different – her ability to defy Harper, and her potential to find him and stop him. She is the very reason there is a story. Surprisingly though her part of the narrative moves quite slowly, focusing on character development, her internship with Dan on the baseball desk, and his growing affection for her. The investigation takes a back seat. It seems a little odd, given Kirby’s fervour, although we later learn that she’s spent most of her free time trawling through old newspapers and police reports looking for clues and patterns. Nevertheless, it’s not until we near the end of the book that Kirby starts to make real progress, much of which is dismissed because it seems impossible. The book is by no means boring, but I think it relies heavily on Harper and the other shining girls to drive the narrative until Kirby’s story is ready to get into gear for the climactic ending.
The advantage is that you’re kept in prolonged suspense wondering how the hell Kirby is going to find Harper, the seemingly unstoppable serial killer. I didn’t particularly like the way this happened – through chance, rather than Kirby’s deductions – but I can’t deny that the ending was pretty tense and exciting anyway.
There is much to appreciate in the interim – Beukes’s awesome writing, the horror that is Harper, the stories of the shining girls, Kirby’s relationship with her mother, Kirby’s relationship with Dan. I also waited very patiently but with growing anticipation for the chapter where Harper tries to kill Kirby. As much as I’d hyped it up by the time I got to it, it still managed to be shockingly brutal and evocative, leaving me stunned with one of the saddest and most painful images in the book.
One final thing I want to mention is how impressive the depiction of Chicago is. Beukes has obviously done extensive research (don’t ignore the acknowledgements; it’s worth seeing how much work went into this). The plot traverses six decades, and in the relatively short space of 298 pages we see several of Chicago’s historical and cultural faces as the city shifts and grows.
I’m glad that I bought the Umuzi signed and numbered collector’s edition hardcover of this. It’s a great story and one of the best South African novels I’ve read. I love its mysterious take on time travel and the way Beukes uses it as a plot device that brings a fresh perspective to both historical and crime fiction. The Shining Girls deserves its status as one of the most talked-about books at the moment, and strongly encourage you to read it and join the conversation.