“It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”
I’ve been bombarded with promotions for The Shining Girls. The posters entice me on the tube, twitter updates me with reviews and all my favourite authors have been raving about Lauren Beukes latest novel.
I didn’t actually need the posters, twitter feed or author recommendations to want to read The Shining Girls – I’m already a big fan of Beukes. My fandom began with reading Zoo City and quickly escalated when I attended a talk at the British Library where she spent a lot of the time wearing a furry sloth on her head. It was awesome and put her quickly at the top of my author-crush list (yes, there’s a list).
I’ve been looking forward to this novel ever since Harper Collins announced its publication so despite promising I would save this book for my holiday… I just couldn’t wait.
The Shining Girls is serial killer crime-thriller meets time travel adventure.
Harper Curtis is a time-travelling sociopath. He’s a creep with a limp on the opposite side of the psycho spectrum to the charismatic Hannibal Lector or Patrick Bateman. There is no charming intellect or glamour about Harper, just a pathetic and repulsive mind. His third person narrative leaves no room for empathy and the only thing to draw from his character is a massive case of the heebie jeebies.
Like most serial killers, Harper’s always had the impulse; Beukes mentions his childhood hurting cute fluffy animals and a questionable accident that left his brother crippled. However, it’s only when he enters the House that he begins his murder spree of the Shining Girls. Stumbling into the derelict house from the 1930’s, Chicago, Harper realises instantly that there is something strange…
“This House is full of expectations that makes the hair on his arms rise. There is someone in here with him. And it is not the dead body lying in the hallway.”
It’s here, in the House, that he finds their names. Nine in total, the names are scrawled on the wall in his own handwriting. It’s a timeless shrine to his victims, the Shining Girls, an entire wall filled with their names and keepsakes. They live and die across the decades and it’s the House that gives Harper the ability to travel through time and find them.
The book criss-crosses time as Harper stalks his victims across 20th century Chicago. This is the first book Beukes has written outside of South Africa (her homeland) and she researched the city extensively to create a historical accuracy across several decades – Yikes! There are some great historical pointers including a great reference to the glowing radium girls of the 1920’s. One of the points I found most impressive about the novel was the regular change in atmosphere as Harper flits through the different American eras from the depressing, downtrodden 1930s to the paranoid mind-set of the McCarthy years.
As you can imagine, a time travelling sociopath is pretty hard to catch. It is up to Beukes’s protagonist, Shining Girl Kirby to find Harper and solve the mystery of her own near-femicide. Kirby is a cool heroine, sarcastic, sharp and bitter to survive Harpers’ horrific attack. And it is horrific. Some of the books violence is hard to stomach, especially (for obviously reasons) when the victims are being disembowelled by the killer’s knife. It’s at this point that you slightly resent Beukes gift for visceral description. Kirby’s left with a multitude of scars and a lifetime of sympathy but refuses to play victim. Determined to do what the police can’t and find her murderer, she gets herself an internship at the local newspaper and starts digging into femicide cases from the last few decades. The novel plays out as the hunter becoming the hunted.
NY Times described The Shining Girls as a strong contender for “this summer’s universal beach read”, creating the perfect excuse to plug it to any friends who aren’t your regular sci-fi readers. It’s definitely a step into the mainstream for Beukes whose previous novels are cyber punk meets gritty urban fantasy. I have to admit, after geeking out on Moxyland and Zoo City I would have loved her next book to be similar but The Shining Girls more than made up for the lack of cyber-funk. It’s a great thriller, a gripping page turner and manages to pull off a high concept idea while remaining an easy read.