Posts Tagged ‘Lauren Beukes’

Book Review – The Shining Girls

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For different reasons, neither time-travel stories* nor serial-killer stories hold much attraction for me.  Curiously, by combining the two tropes in The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes creates something that is more compelling than either.

Although we meet a wide range of characters in the decades-spanning story, the plot centers on Harper Curtis, a sociopath from Depression-era Chicago. Harper stumbles onto a House significant enough to deserve that capitalization. Its doors can open on any time in the House’s history, between the late twenties until 1994. While the House’s former occupant used this feature to make a pile of money gambling (like you do when you discover you can travel into the future and check box scores and lotto numbers), Harper uses it to stalk specific young women in different decades, take an object from their lives — like a cigarette lighter or a baseball card — and gruesomely murder them. Sharing the spotlight is Kirby Mazrachi, the one girl who survives Harper’s attack. Beyond the ridiculous conceit of the time-hopping House, Beukes otherwise plays it very straight and naturalistic, making the characters and historical world as real as possible.

Harper, ultimately, is little more than your standard boilerplate serial killer. Step 1) tortured animals on his parents farm. Step 2) graduated to maiming his brother. Step 3) murdered a small-time thug in Al Capone’s gang, and realized this is the kind of thing that turns his crank. Beyond that, his reasons for killing are not explored or explained — and probably shouldn’t be, for what he is. He’s the bad guy. He’s scary. Really scary. You win, Lauren Beukes. You can write a pretty f*cked up dude. But it’s the way he commits his murders and avoids capture that actually create interest and tension for the reader. A time-traveling killer can escape to another decade, can return to the crime scene days or years before the crime took place, can meet the victim as a child if he wants, or jump forward to after the crime and read the papers to find out how he did/should do it. Harper’s victims live sometimes generations apart (although all live in Chicago or nearabouts), and his evolving MO, from quick and vicious stabbing to elaborate arrangement of the victim’s internal organs, does not appear in linear fashion to the detectives on his cases. How could it all be the work of one man? And even if it were, how would they find him? None of the prime-time TV profilers I know would put it together, either.

Enter Kirby, whom Harper attacks in 1989, near the end of his career chronologically but just midway through a spree that only lasts months for Harper. On the slimmest of chances, Kirby survives. After two years of post-traumatic stress and knowing the man who hurt her is still out there, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Lacking the funds to hire a private investigator, she instead takes a journalism class at her college, gets an internship for The Chicago Sun-Times and attaches herself to Dan, a former crime reporter. He was demoted to sports when he started uncovering corruption in the police department. Under the guise of a journalist, Kirby gains access to old police evidence, news archives, lawyers’ offices, and prison cells, and slowly puts the puzzle together, linking the objects that Harper steals from each victim and leaves on another.

Subtly, the story becomes about more than horror and more than time travel. Using varying POV chapters — from both Kirby and Harper’s perspectives, along with a wide cast of other characters, including the other murder victims — Beukes creates a panorama of Chicago history as well as the history of women on the frontier of their gender. Harper is attracted to each of his victims because she is, in his mind, “shining.” While what makes someone worth of this description is never explicitly said, each woman pushes boundaries in her own time: one is an African American riveter during WWII, one is the first female architect in an all-male firm (plus she’s a lesbian plus she knows communists!), one is a transgender showgirl. Etc. Etc. Without being heavy handed about it, Beukes lets us understand the weight of history and societal structures hemming in her characters, while they at the same time display the pluck to challenge them. That goes not only for gender (obviously a major theme here) but also class and race. The two African American male characters in the story (one a drug addict, one a prisoner, albeit for a crime he didn’t actually commit) are stereotypical and pat, without offering much in the way of analysis. But the attention that Beukes gives to the circumstances and journey of the female characters shows a much fuller understanding of the ways and means people end up doing what they do. And when an author casually drops in lines about blockbusting and police torturing witnesses, I have to believe she has some lefty-social awareness. All of the POV characters are working people, struggling more or less to get through the day with their dignity, and occasionally to do some good in the world.

Kirby herself is a loveable badass. Socially awkward after her ordeal — described in detail in one nightmarish chapter — she barrels her way onto the newspaper staff, wearing punk rock tee shirts and plying the librarians to help her with day-old doughnuts. The comradely relationship she develops with Dan, who’s somewhere between romantic prospect and mentor, was the novel’s most compelling, and enjoyable, aspect for me. But that’s probably because I kept imagining Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now! in Dan’s role. Dan both tries to help her track down her almost-killer and to dissuade her; he both doubts her emotional stability and yet wants to give her the respect that she lost when she became a poor-little-crime-victim. Indeed, the women-pushing-boundaries theme is most evident in Kirby’s story. Most crime dramas sideline the victims (often women) while valorizing the police (often men) who hunt down and catch the bad guys. In making Kirby both victim and detective for this story, Beukes lets her protagonist maintain agency while still being vulnerable. We worry for her. A lot. And we wish we were as gutsy and smart as she is.

The utter failure of police to find Harper, of course, could be excused by the sheer inconceivability of time-traveling. What plausible character, other than Kirby, could believe it? But Dan’s disillusionment after his years on the crime beat, and the locking up of two young African American men for one of Harper’s crimes, offer an implicit criticism of the criminal justice system. One reason crime stories rarely work for me is they tend to read as pro-cop, pro-prosecutor, pro-prison, and pro-death penalty — neatly resting the problem on the shoulders of an individual criminal and his (it’s almost always a him, isn’t it?) bad choices, while offering the state and its justice system as the solution. In other words, the system works; the bad guys get their comeuppance; the good guys win. At the end, The Shining Girls did have a similar effect — I was far more worried about somebody taking out Harper than about someone making sure trans girls feel safe living openly or scientist girls are getting jobs and research money in equality with their male colleagues. Of course these problems are harder to resolve in a 400-page novel. They are also expressly political, while the conflict of would-be-victim versus sociopath is not.

Interestingly, the way Beukes handles the paradox problems with time travel also has an apolitical cast: Harper, in traveling through time, is entirely constrained by what he has done before (in his own past as well as the chronological past) and what he will do (in his own future and the chronological future). Harper closes all his own time loops; for instance, he travels back in time to murder the House’s original occupant, so that he can discover the body in the future upon his first entrance into the House (which he knows he will do, of course, because he has already done it). The fatalistic feeling that he can do no differently compliments his identity as a sociopath: there is nothing he, nor anyone else, nor community or society, can do about it. No one, and nothing, is to blame for his crimes. Unless you want to blame fate. Time-travel and serial-killer story turn out to be simpatico.

I can’t say, though, that The Shining Girls isn’t a page-turner. If it ultimately didn’t quite satisfy the political questions it raises, I nevertheless stand in awe of the pacing, characterization, and research that Beukes has achieved. After her last novel, Zoo City, and this one, I’m eagerly anticipating her next fiction.

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*Unless we’re talking Dr. WhoBack to the Future, or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Apparently there has to be an eccentric older man with a signature accessory and/or a teenage boy involved.

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