For her third novel, Lauren Beukes abandons not only the urban fantasy sci-fi of her first offerings, but also her usual South African setting to tell the story of a time-travelling murderer who stalks and kills his victims throughout Chicago’s twentieth century history.
At the start of the novel Harper Curtis, a violent immoral drifter in Depression era Chicago, stumbles upon the House (we know it’s important as it has a capital). It’s a building with a strange secret – it allows you to travel from the late ‘20s to the early ‘90s. Harper also discovers a room filled with girls’ names (his shining girls) and trophies (tennis ball, Janis Joplin tape, contraceptive pill packet) from each victim. It’s like a map which he follows, hunting each girl through time, killing her in an unpleasant way (guts flying) and swapping one of her personal belongings for the trophy from another girl.
So when he murders Jinsuk in 1993 he leaves a pair of stage wings from another victim and takes Jinsuk’s baseball card. He then leaves the baseball card on the body of Zora in 1943 and takes her goodluck letter “z”. And so on. Of course this leaves loads of anachronistic items across time, a trail of clues that no one can solve… until Kirby that is.
Kirby is one of Harper’s victims assaulted in 1989. However she survives. Fastforward to the early ‘90s when she’s doing work experience at a Chicago paper and teams up with reporter Dan to try and track down her would be killer. It’s these two story lines we follow in The Shining Girls, told either from the two main protagonists Harper and Kirby, or other characters in the scene (Dan, a homeless lad, Harper’s victims etc).
It’s actually a fairly straightforward structure, but initially it’s daunting and complex due to the constant and seemingly illogical shifts in time. This is actually something I found really appealing; I always enjoy narrative puzzles and went to work on this one, flicking back through what I’d read and finding clues, creating a chart of time-lines, events and victims (of course it all works). It’s an angle that gives the typical ‘serial killer stalking women’ thriller a new twist.
But make no mistake – this is a page turner. It’s a pacey thriller with quick shifts in focus and speedy chapters, which is crying out for a big screen adaptation (I can already see it: Se7en meets The Time Traveler’s Wife). And it works. Beukes has a tight hold on what she’s doing and most of the characterisation is detailed; oddly it’s only the serial killer who seems not as well drawn. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic? We find ourselves empathising totally with his victims – even when their deaths are narrated from Harper’s perspective.
After all, Harper is just vile. He’s the kind of guy who hacks the legs off a baby chick just to see what happens and watches while his brother gets crushed by a truck. He time travels to wank over future and past crime scenes and even goes through a phase of visiting his victims when they’re younger and chatting to them, just, you know, to creep them out and give him bigger kicks. Poor Catherine for example. He finds her as a kid, steals her hairclip, tells her he’s going to murder her later in life then scuttles back to the House. When he decides to come for her (bringing back the hairclip he stole) she’s spent so many years freaking out about her sinister harbinger that she’s a drug addled mess begging him for death. Harper is one sick bastard.
So when the demises are narrated from one of the shining girls’ POVs it’s almost unbearable. There’s nowhere to hide, no escape. In a peculiar kind of foreshadowing we know they never had a chance and never will – unless of course Kirby can make a difference.
We spend a lot of time with Kirby and she’s characterised in a layered way. Damaged by Harper both mentally and physically, yet out of place and awkward before he ever attacked her. Her mother is a lax hippy parent who dates widely and smokes weed. I’m sure I read somewhere that Beukes is a big fan of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Kirby’s segments did remind me of the Luisa Rey story (about a female journalist in ‘70s California investigating corruption, nuclear power plants and murder, written in a thriller style). Like Luisa, Kirby is trying to find the truth at all costs. She’s an outsider, marked not only by her horrific scars but by her punk hair and Fugazi t-shirts.
It’s an intriguing and disturbing novel and it’s certainly more mainstream than her previous work, but it’s not perfect. The ending feels rushed and unsatisfying while there’s something slightly clichéd about the final chapter (I won’t give it away). And we never really get to understand why or how the House works. Not that it really matters I guess. The Shining Girls is an inventive, gruelling and unsettling read, but one that leaves many questions unanswered.