The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Posted on: June 29, 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors. 

Lauren Beukes has been a much loved genre writer for some time now, but her latest book The Shining Girls has become a huge crossover hit with the rare distinction of being both critically acclaimed and a bestseller. This is of course, no surprise to genre readers who have read and loved her Arthur C. Clarke award winning novel Zoo City, or her earlier cyberpunk novel Moxyland. To those of us, Beukes’ 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 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 or characteristics 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 without a second thought, 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 each is a child, going back later when they are adults to ‘close the loop’ by brutally murdering each. 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 girl who didn’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 some years later, 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 is a perfectly determined, ultimate final girl who 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 nor survive Harper. The star here isn’t just Kirby though - as well drawn and appealing a character as she is - the star is Beukes’ portrayal of 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, just deaths to rack up a large number of kills the way ‘apex predator’ thrillers often do. These women are not just headlines, not just a ‘Grisly Find’ or a ‘Co-Ed Killing’ because Beukes very carefully builds a world around the victims, contextualising each woman, ensuring they are all individuals and never reducing them to just flesh and bone, regardless of the violence inflicted on them. We meet these characters over 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 she is a victim whose 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, Lauren 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 in the most glorious of ways. Beukes 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, it makes this an intelligent book for an intelligent reader willing to be challenged, frustrated and enraptured. It helps, of course, that Beukes’ writing has it’s own very 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 .