Victims shine in a sci-fi crime thriller
The Shining Girls
By Lauren Beukes HarperCollins, 400pp, $29.99
WHILE South African author Lauren Beukes garnered impressive reviews for her 2008 debut novel Moxyland, a cyber-dystopia set in a hi-tech Cape Town, it was her second novel, Zoo City, published two years later, that brought her to international attention.
Zoo City, which takes the tropes of urban fantasy and reimagines them in an African context, attracted widespread acclaim inside and outside the speculative fiction community and picked up not just the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award but the super-hip Kitschies Red Tentacle for best novel.
So Beukes’s new novel The Shining Girls arrives with a considerable weight of expectation behind it. The subject of a bidding war at Frankfurt Book Fair two years ago, it is also clearly intended as the book that will complete 36-year-old Beukes’s transformation from genre darling to mainstream star.
Like Moxyland and Zoo City, The Shining Girls is distinguished by its deft appropriation and reinvention of familiar tropes. Here the tropes being appropriated — serial killers and time travel — are more familiar, yet their reinvention is no less striking, at least on the surface, taking an often moribund genre (if you’ll pardon the pun) and transforming it into a whip-smart, mildly tricksy and compulsively readable entertainment.
The killer at the novel’s centre is Harper. On the run in Depression-era Chicago he steals a jacket from a blind woman, only to find a key in its pocket that impels him to approach and enter a seemingly ruined house.
Inside the house, along with a murdered corpse sprawled in the hallway, Harper finds a series of artefacts assembled in a room — a baseball card, a plastic pony, a pair of butterfly wings — all mounted on the walls and connected by a tracery of lines. And with them, scrawled on the wall, a series of women’s names, written in what he recognises as his own handwriting, a mystery that is explained when he looks out the window and sees the scene outside scroll forward in time, ‘‘ the sudden brightness’’ changing ‘‘ to thick rolling clouds and silvered dashes of rain, then to a red-streaked sunset, like a cheap zoetrope. But instead of a galloping horse or a girl saucily removing her stockings, it’s whole seasons whirring past.’’
Rather like the portal to 1950s America in Stephen King’s recent 11.22.63, the mechanism by which the house has come uncoupled from time is never explained, except in the most general, hand-waving sense. Yet in a way it doesn’t matter. For as his initial terror subsides Harper discovers he can control the house’s movements, allowing him to move back and forth between 1931 and 1992, an ability he soon harnesses in pursuit of his compulsive need to find and kill each of the women whose names his future self has scrawled on the walls.
In Beukes’s hands the paradoxes of this process acquire an uneasy charge. Once and then again Harper encounters the effects of his actions before they have happened, a process that means the narrative tightens like a noose rather than unravelling.
But if it is Harper’s quest to kill his ‘‘ shining girls’’ that gives the novel its elegantly circular spine, then the book’s heart belongs to Kirby Mazrachi, a girl attacked by Harper in 1989 who dedicates herself to tracking down her would-be killer, first alone and later with the help of journalist Dan Velasquez, and to the shining girls themselves, each of whose lives we enter in the hours before their death.
The intention, obviously enough, is to subvert the tendency of many thrillers to use women as little more than plot devices or excuses for sadistic representations of sexual violence. Beukes demands readers engage with the victims as human beings.
In places this is extremely effective: characters such as Zora, a black woman working in the Chicago shipyards during World War II, or Alice, a transvestite showgirl working the fairs in 1940, come vividly to life. In other places, as with the depictions of two of Harper’s later victims, Catherine and Jin-Sook, the girls remain little more than sketches of characters.
Yet in a way the sketchiness of such characters doesn’t matter, not least because the victim the reader truly cares about, Kirby, is rendered with such energy and empathy. Less self-loathing than Zoo City’s heroine Zinzi, Kirby is, with her uncontrollable hair and boots that take five minutes to lace, nonetheless a classic Beukes heroine: smart, resourceful and unconventional.And it is this empathy that grounds The Shining Girls. For even as Beukes’s high-octane prose pushes the book forward, it’s the moments of human connection that resonate, bulwarks against the absence at the heart not just of Harper but of so many in the real world.
Lauren Beukes in front of the
murder wall’ she used to plot her novel