Vic­tims shine in a sci-fi crime thriller

The Shin­ing Girls

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley James Bradley’s

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

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