Fiction Reviews

The Shining Girls

(2013) Lauren Beukes, Harper Collins, £12.99, hrdbk, 391pp, ISBN 978-0-007-46456-2


Harper Curtis is a down and out in early 1930s Chicago when he comes across a house in a rundown area of town. Inside it is well kept. The owner returns and Harper kills him: killing comes easily to Harper. However it is when Harper leaves the house that he finds that the house occupies a period of time – which of course all objects in our space-time continuum do – but this house is special in that when one leaves it one comes out at any time within a roughly third-of-a-century window that the person is thinking about. Harper realises that he can make money out of this house's property, and indeed in the house he comes across stacks of cash in denomination bundles relating to different time periods. He also realises that he can use time travelling to satiate his thirst for killing.

The 1930s to early 1990s time window within which the plot hops places (as many crime novels these days do) the action in the days before society got connected with the internet and mobile phones. Without search engines, without capturing pictures and not even being able to call for help with mobile phones, not only gives the perpetrator more opportunity but our journalist protagonists have to manually slog through records and join all the dots themselves. This time window also provides a series of varying backdrops against which the plot unfolds: but then that is one of the benefits of employing the time travel trope.

Harper's sadistic lust is focussed on girls who shine: his 'shining girls'. And he visits each of his chosen young victims in turn to give them a token before returning (from their perspective many years in the future) to take their lives back and swop the token for another that he previously used with another of his victims. And the time travel window even enables an instance mirroring 1930s real life with one of Harper's girls literally shining: she was a dancer covered in radium body paint! (Don't worry, this takes place early on in the book, is brief and is not plot pivotal, so does not constitute a spoiler.)

However, one of his targets, Kirby Mazrachi, survives Harper's vicious attack. As the years go by Kirby sees in the news other murders and begins to think that there is a serial killer on the loose. She is determined to track him down. A student, she gets an opportunity as an intern for a newspaper; specifically an intern for a sports journalist who used to be the paper's crime reporter. Meanwhile, Harper Curtis is continuing to track down his shining girls…

The Shining Girls is Lauren Beukes' third novel to be published in Europe. Moxyland was her first novels published in Europe, and I got to see that by accident: not as a review copy sent to SF2 Concatenation but as a freebie in the 2010 British Eastercon goody bag. However I recognised straightaway that Lauren Beukes' writing was something special even if that title was not exactly my cup of tea: I hope that after all these years in SF I am capable of a certain amount of impartiality without letting personal bias colour my reviewing. But I did not realise back then how big an impact this new writer would have. Her next title was Zoo City which was shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke (book) Award. As it happened, again quite by accident, I chanced to be sitting next to her in the front row at the award ceremony when the winner was announced. And now we have The Shining Girls.

The idea of time travel as the key element of a murderer's modus operandi is not new and, indeed, it underpins the grandfather paradox thought experiment: the impossibility of going back in time to kill your own grandfather. Further, the concept of a house having a time portal is also not new and was not that long ago used by Stephen King in his 11.22.63. That novel also had at its heart killing with the protagonist going back to stop President Kennedy's assassination. That novel was hard SF albeit smothered by intense bloat. The Shining Girls is different. The Shining Girls is in essence a fantasy horror, albeit with an SFnal thread in the form of the time-travel trope. But here the time travel has no hard SF rationale, instead it has a fantasy one worthy of Stephen King at that man's best. (I'll say no more in case of risking a spoiler.)

The Shining Girls gripped me from the start. Lauren Beukes' characterisation and taught writing is, quite simply, brilliant. And that is all you really need to know other than the book deals with adult themes and so should come with an X certificate. Having said that, given the book's subject matter, there are not the lashings of gore that one gets in slash horror. This book will undoubtedly go down well with readers of both crime and horror novels. Fantasy readers who do occasionally dip into crime (some do) and horror (quite a few do) will also love this. In addition I can see those into mainstream 'literary' fiction enjoying this title too. Expect this book to be quite a commercial success and for Beukes' name to garner further genre cred.

Jonathan Cowie

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