Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
Lauren Beukes’ latest book, The Shining Girls, has become a huge crossover hit with the distinction of being both critically acclaimed and a bestseller. This is, of course, no surprise to those who have read and loved her award-winning novel ZooCity, or her earlier cyberpunk novel Moxyland. Her massive current success with The Shining Girls was very clearly just a matter of time. Here is a writer who easily straddles genre and form (she’s written for television and comics as well), who has now written a book that will appeal to fans of mainstream fiction just as easily as to those who don’t venture far from speculative fiction. This is not a science fiction novel, though it uses the conceit of time travel. This is also not a speculative fiction novel. What this is, then, is a riveting story based on an intriguing concept told with great control and intelligence.
The Shining Girls is set in various times in Chicago. In 1931, we meet a drifter named Harper Curtis, who is very clearly the villain of this story — an evil man, with no redeeming features at all. A high functioning predator with a frightening psychosis, he encompasses every vile characteristic of the classic serial killer — he pulls the wings off bees, he kills only women and mercilessly, imagining he can see the future in their spilled insides, he is a man who sees “a vista of hell” around him. Soon after we meet him, he murders a frail, old, blind woman because her coat looks warm. In this coat he finds a key that leads him to “the House” — a place central to the novel, a place both outside of time and open to all time, with a room that contains constellations of names and objects: Harper’s “destiny spelled out”.
Somehow, Harper is certain he’s been here before and he knows instinctively which patterns to follow, “like a door opening inside him”. Sounds thrum in Harper’s mind and objects “burrow their way into his head, insistent as flea bites,” leading him to his victims, young girls who “shine”. He first establishes contact with them when they are children, going back later when they are adults to “close the loop” by brutally murdering them. All he has to do to reach them at any point in their lives is to open the door of the House and step “into sometime else”.
Of all Harper’s victims, Kirby is the one who doesn’t die, her life given a new focus after she survives Harper’s vicious attack. Left for dead in 1989 by a man who could not be identified or tracked, Kirby takes up the search for her killer with a single-minded focus, signing up as an intern with a Chicago newspaper and insisting on the help of an ex-homicide reporter. Scarred and damaged but shining on, Kirby refuses to accept that failure is a possibility. Back from the dead, she’s willing to open every box she needs to and face the consequences: “Just call me Pandora,” she says.
The Shining Girls is about Kirby’s hunt for her hunter, just as much as it is about all the women who did not survive Harper. The star here isn’t just Kirby though, as well-drawn and appealing a character as she is, but also the women murdered by Harper. Each of their stories is perfectly crafted, well-researched and of course, nuanced enough to always leave you wanting more. Harper kills these women because he sees them shine, because there is something special about each of them. If violence against women isn’t something you want to think about, then maybe The Shining Girls is not the book for you because Beukes drags out the bristling darkness that surrounds the deaths, thrash and struggle though it might, and dumps it front and centre. Here is a writer not afraid to face the demons that fill our world, and she isn’t afraid to make you face them either.
Beukes refuses to use Harper’s female victims as just bodies; these women are not just headlines, and Beukes very carefully builds a world around them, contextualising each one of them, ensuring they are all individuals and never reducing them to just flesh and bone. We meet them over the decades of Harper’s hunts, each of them as interesting as the other. They range from Jeanette in 1931, the “Glow Girl” who paints her body with radium so she is seen in the dark as she dances; Alice in 1940, the lonely transsexual who doesn’t belong; Zora in 1943, the young African-American war widow trying to make ends meet as a welder in a racist society; Margot in 1972, who helps young unmarried women with safe albeit illegal abortions — each of these women is not just important because her death moves the plot forward, but because she reveals the changing history of Chicago and that of women in America at a given point in time. Beukes is very smart and very subtle — her meticulously researched detailing of the lives of each of Harper’s victims is a concise commentary on the changing roles of women over the years, with each victim’s personality being an important touchstone. This, of course, makes it all the more tragic when lives are so brutally cut short.
This is not your standard, straight-laced chronological narrative thriller. With The Shining Girls, Beukes rips time, tears off jumbled-up slivers of it and presents them to you with clues on how to weave it all back together. She demands her reader to be more engaged and more attentive than many contemporary writers do, but this does not make The Shining Girls a difficult book to read. Rather, this makes it an intelligent book for an intelligent reader willing to be challenged, frustrated and enraptured. It helps, of course, that Beukes’ writing has its own sharp, specific rhythms that immerse the reader entirely. She herself may describe The Shining Girls as a “high concept thriller” but I just describe it as brilliant.
The Shining Girls
By Lauren Beukes
INTERVIEW Working with multiple timelines can be complicated. Are you happy with how it turned out in The Shining Girls?
I’m really happy — everything worked out really well. I had to work with three different timelines: there’s the killer’s timeline which is completely out of order. He’s killing a girl in 1984 and then he goes back to 1943 which makes his modus operandi impossible to track. Then I’ve got the actual historical timeline, and then the book’s timeline which skips between his perspective and Kirby’s perspective and also brings in all the other girls’ perspective as well. And to try and keep track of all of this was an absolute nightmare but I mapped it out very, very carefully.
You’ve said you wrote the stories of the women “as they came up”. What does that mean, considering the research that went into this book?
I think there is a lot of subconscious play that comes up in novel writing. Of course, you have an idea of what you’re doing or where you’re going to go, but sometimes you’ll find something in the research that will spark a different idea or it’ll evolve the idea or as you’re writing it the idea changes slightly because you think of a better idea while you’re actually putting fingers to keyboard. But looking at all the different women, I was interested in teasing out details of the different decades and looking at what that says about us as a society.
How did you tackle the elements of violence towards women?
I wanted to do it in a way that was really not gratuitous. I really don’t like the idea of doing violence for violence’s sake. I think violence is one of the most horrific things that can happen to someone and it’s a trauma that people endure daily throughout the world, especially women. And I wanted to get at the heart of that, of what violence is and what violence does to us on an individual level. What does it mean when a life is cut short? That this isn’t just a beautiful, sexy body lying splayed on the floor which is how young women in fiction often are — the sexy broad with her blonde hair trailing into the pool and her dress ruched up. I wanted to explore who are these people who are killed? Who are the people behind the corpses? I wanted to get into their lives and give them perspective, so that you would feel the tragedy of their loss.
— Mahvesh Murad