South Africa’s Lauren Beukes might be one of the best genre writers of the early twenty-first century, but I prefer to think of one of its best writers, regardless of genre. Her third novel may be her best to date, a beautifully-crafted, thoughtful work about time-travel, a serial killer, and the young women he stalks.
Title: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
First published in April 2013; first published in North America, September 2013.
As the Great Depression bowls over America, a disturbed, sinister young man finds a house in Chicago that permits him to travel across the twentieth century. He uses the house to seek victims who may or may not be predetermined, and then escape back into his own time.
One of these Shining Girls escapes, and she intends to stop him.
The book has many strengths. The dedication the author shows to her premise impressed me the most. The narrative has been as fragmented as the novel’s timeline, and yet it develops into a coherent account, as readable and engaging as the best contemporary literature. Beukes has also thought through the implications of her version of time travel as much as the makers of Primer, but she’s produced a more engaging (and far less confusing) tale. Along the way, The Shining Girls raises many questions about causality, free will, and related topics.
If you read widely, especially in the speculative genres, you’ve likely encountered this problem before. A writer crafts a clever book around a high concept. She explores the implications of that concept, and uses it to reflect on real-world issues.
The ending simply cannot sustain the brilliance of what comes before. It’s not that The Shining Girls has a poor ending; it’s just that it’s both predictable and strangely uncertain.
The novel itself is not.
He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sport coat. It is sweaty in his hand. Midsummer, here, is too hot for what he’s wearing. But he has learned to put on a uniform for this purpose; jeans in particular. He takes long strides—a man who walks because he’s got somewhere to be, despite his gimpy foot. Harper Curtis is not a moocher. And time waits for no one. Except when it does.
The girl is sitting cross-legged on the ground, her bare knees white and bony as birds’ skulls, but also grass stained. She looks up at the sound of his boots scrunching on the gravel and broken glass—long enough for him to see that her eyes are brown under that tangle of grubby curls—before she dismisses him and goes back to her business. Harper is disappointed. His personal preference is for blue, the color of the lake, out where it gets deep, where the shoreline disappears and it feels like you’re in the middle of the ocean. Brown is the color of shrimping, when the mud is all churned up in the shallows and you can’t see shit for shit(2)
Originality: 4/6 The book avoids many of the pitfalls that beset the literature of time-travel, and brings a genuinely original approach to the serial killer narrative.
Wisely, I suspect, she does not attempt to explain what makes the house possible. We may be in SF, but it’s best to view this as a realistic fantasy.
Imagery: 6/6 Whether describing a little girl’s bedroom or a man’s decaying corpse, Beukes has a feel for drawing the reader into the image. Her ability to evoke eras she’s never seen in a country she has only visited (it’s her first book not set in South Africa) may astound you,.1 The encounters between killer Curtis and his victims at various points in their lives evokes horror and wonder.
Story: 5/6 You may have difficulty following the story and its fragmented timeline, but it holds up to additional readings, and Beukes wisely identifies each chapter by time.
Characterization: 6/6 This novel features many characters, briefly but beautifully drawn, and a main character, Kirby, presented with considerable depth. Beukes earns extra points for making Harper Curtis compelling, credible, and creepy, but never glamorous.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Overall score: 5/6
In total, The Shining Girls receives 37/42