Review: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

16131077>>Published: June 2013

>>Finally got around to it: July 2013

She has time to yelp in surprise as a man steps out from the shrubs, grabs her arm and swings her to the ground with quick and incontestable force. She wrenches her wrist as she automatically sticks it out to catch herself. Her knee hammers into a rock so hard that her vision goes briefly white. When it clears, it’s to see Tokyo lying heaving on his side in the bushes.

Someone has wrapped a wire coathanger round his neck so that it cuts into his throat, leaving the fur around it soaked with blood. He’s twisting his head, squirming his shoulders, trying to get away, because the wire is looped to a branch sticking out of a fallen tree. Every time he moves, it cuts in deeper. The hacking sound is him trying to bark with his vocal cords severed. At something behind her.

She forces herself up on to her elbows, in time for the man to swing the crutch into her face. The impact shatters her cheekbone in an explosion of pain that arcs through her skull. She crumples onto the damp earth. And then he’s on top of her, his knee in her back. She writes and kicks under him, as he wrests her arms behind her, grunting while he wires her wrists together. “Fuckyougetoffme” she spits into the mulch of dirt and leaves. It tastes of damply rotting things, soft and gritty between her teeth.

He rolls her over roughly, panting through his teeth and rams the tennis ball into her mouth before she can scream, splitting her lip and chipping a tooth. It compresses as it goes in, expands to force her jaw open. She chokes on the taste of rubber and dog spit and blood. She tries to push it out with her tongue only to encounter a shard of enamel from a broken tooth. She gags at this piece of her skull in her mouth. The vision in her left eye has gone hazy and purple. Her cheek bone, pushing up against the socket. But everything is contracting anyway.

***

Harper Curtis both admires and despises women. He wants to meet them as children, watch them grow up, grow into the incredible potential he sees in their futures. He then wants to extinguish those futures, one by one slashing and carving away the inside light from each of his shining girls. With the key to “the House,” Harper is able to step out of 1929 Chicago and into any time he wants, until 1993 (for reasons I won’t explain for fear of spoiling the ending) hunting his girls across generations—murdering, with extreme prejudice, strong, independent women for whom the world and opportunity is waiting.

Kirby Mazrachi is one of these shining girls, existing both with and without a future. On March 23, 1989, Harper attempted to kill her and failed. Three years later, working together with Dan Velasquez, a former homicide reporter (currently working the sports beat) with the Chicago Sun-Times, Kirby begins an investigation into the grisly details of her own near-death experience, as well as the deaths of many other women in the Chicago area, across an unbelievable number of years—unbelievable, anyway, for one ordinary man to be responsible for. Impossible anachronisms slowly reveal themselves in the gifts Harper exchanges at each scene—e.g. a baseball card left by a body almost a decade before it could have possibly existed—leading Kirby to conclusions she herself finds difficult to imagine, but impossible to ignore.

The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes’ fourth book, is a breathless mindfuck from the very first page until the very last, one that plays with an existing and overused conceit—time travel—in surprisingly new, thrilling, and very fun ways. The novel is also a surprisingly well-crafted character exercise that captures the look and feel of several unique epochs without ever having to force-feed the reader too much scene-setting information.

Kirby is the heart and soul of the book. She’s smart, determined, and quick with the insults. She’s been displaced not in time, but by time—by Harper’s failed attempt at murder. Though she is not dead, she is unable move on with her life until the mystery of her attacker is solved. In essence, Kirby has become unstuck in her life because of a man somehow unstuck in time. This displacement develops within Kirby a sharp divide between the harshness she’s willing to put out for the world to see, and the vulnerability she shows only to Dan. Not even her own mother, an aging hippie who spends her days painting and giving false names to birds, understands Kirby’s need to discover, if not understand, the man behind her attack and his strange existence.

Though the story is Kirby’s, Beukes gives careful consideration to detailing the lives of all of Harper’s victims—giving them pasts, presents, and glimpses of futures brimming with purpose, but instead lost and cut short by tragedy. Each chapter tracking another victim in another time reads like a complete short story with a beginning, middle, and an end; the other victims each have their own identifiably unique voices and internal monologues, and Beukes meticulously—but not overwhelmingly so—fills their worlds with markers of the time, from the Depression to World War II, McCarthyism, and the hippie and feminist movements of the 1970s, and elements of pop culture from the ’80s and ’90s.

Harper is given almost as much page time as Kirby. His tone and mannerisms are believably malignant without his reasons ever becoming expressly clear. Beukes seemingly didn’t feel the need to give Harper a proper origin story, or detail the methods to his madness. Instead, he is what he is: a man whose brain has become warped beyond repair, listening to voices inside his head, constructing plans of attack with obsessive-compulsive ambition. Similarly, the House simply exists—a dilapidated tenement on the outside, quite striking within. In a time—Depression-era Chicago—when homes are being foreclosed upon and boarded up on a regular basis, Harper unexpectedly kills his way to a key that affords him a new purpose in life. If Harper stands limping as an affront to women’s progress (somewhat represented in how he reacts to being drugged and his “kindness” taken advantage of by nurse Etta), the House follows suit as a symbol of a past best forgotten. Incidentally, Harper is unfazed by his ability to travel through time—like the names of his shining girls and how they have inexplicably come to him, in his own handwriting, it is simply meant to be, proving that an insane man’s purpose can override all reality, no matter how questionable or thinly stretched.

So why doesn’t he kill his shining girls when he first meets them as children? Because it’s their potential he hates and fears, not the women themselves. More than that, it’s potential that is capitalized upon that brings out Harper’s need to kill. This is exemplified when he turns on himself for killing a junkie artist who no longer shined as bright as she once had. He’s almost disappointed she didn’t live up to her potential, which positions him as being truly divided: wanting the women to thrive, but wanting them to also know their success is undeserved. He’s at once strangely fatherly and murderously anathema to the feminist movement, resenting women who’ve had the opportunity his life until this point lacked. The “circle” Harper refers to needing to close is also not directly explained, however it is representative of the larger picture: of violence begetting violence, reverberating through generations, affecting both children and parents for years to come.

The moment-to-moment writing is as fire-tongued as the plot. The banter between Kirby and Dan is almost always amusing, and their emotional journey together (as Dan’s paternal instincts slowly become something more, something he tries his hardest to fight against) is sweet, its outcome earned. On the other end of the spectrum, Kirby’s attack is so disgustingly, artfully rendered as to be effectively nauseating. It’s a late in the novel break-in scene, however, that, over just a couple of pages, shocked me with how much it was able to say without actually saying anything definitive. The illustrative work is impressive and economical.

The science and/or explanation behind the House’s capabilities and Harper’s beginnings aren’t what matter. Rather, it’s what Beukes is able to do within a specific, oft-employed framework, twisting the knife in distressing ways while not being hindered by the need to wrap everything up in a neat, 100 percent paradox-free bow. Great joy comes from seeing how details and events in one timeline and from one perspective match up later on, and the anachronistic tchotchkes add a fun mystery-puzzle element to the proceedings, but it’s the character work and how successful Beukes is in making us care for Kirby and wanting her to get to the bottom of her near-death experience that propels this semi-non linear story towards its heart-stopping, visually heavy conclusion. The Shining Girls is a book of large ideas and intimate conversations masterfully executed.

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