The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Out Brief Candle (Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes)

The Shining Girls

The Shining Girls
Lauren Beukes
Harper Collins 2013

Kirby Mazrachi is just a normal little girl doing what girls do. A tea party out in the field, no-one around but her and her toys, happy in the shade of a tree with a breeze blowing through her hair. Until he appears. Kirby is a smart girl, she knows not to talk to strangers, but it's almost like he knows her. He doesn't try to hurt her, doesn't try to take her anywhere, he just talks. He says some strange things but nothing so strange as when he leaves, giving her a plastic orange pony as a parting gift: "I'll see you when you're all grown up. Look out for me, OK, sweetheart?" He's true to his word.

Flash forward ... years. Kirby stumbles out of the cover of a clump of trees by a deserted patch of river. Barely alive, bleeding from multiple stab wounds and carrying her dead dog in her arms she is truly at death's door, saved only by a terrified fisherman who happened to be nearby. Kirby is the lucky one, she pull through despite her horrific injuries, her assailant never seen nor heard of again. Or is he? For Kirby is just one among many, victims of a serial killer whose methods are so strange and subtle as to be virtually undetectable to all save this one survivor.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is a detective thriller with a truly novel twist in the form of a time travelling murderer, Harper. On the run from a gambling session gone bad in early Twentieth-Century Chicago, Harper finds himself pursued by an angry vigilante mob of shanty-dwellers. A man of few morals he has no qualms about killing to keep his location secret but he has no idea what awaits him when he murders a young woman for her coat. The key in its pocket leads him to an abandoned house in the middle of Chicago's slums, sumptuously decorated and containing a dead body and a seeming shrine to a number of girls replete with scrawled notes and mementos. The house speaks to him, urging him on to unspeakable acts, and on leaving he finds himself transported to the future. He knows what he must do, he must track down and savagely murder the girls on the list. They are separated by decades but linked by two common threads; they all live in the Chicago area, and they are all 'shining girls', possessed of some inner spark giving the potential to achieve great things in their lives. Harper has other plans for them.

So the story goes, with Harper flitting in and out of time, visiting his targets as children and then returning for the execution years later. Some have indeed accomplished much, others are floundering, but they all eventually succumb to his blade in vicious attacks. All except Kirby, the heroine of The Shining Girls and a suitably no-nonsense, kick-ass protagonist. Following her ordeal and all but abandoned by her fading hippie mother, Kirby is as solid as they come, dedicating her life to solving the mystery of her attack. To this end she bullies her way into a job in a Chicago newspaper, using her new connections and sheer willpower to access newspaper archives, police reports, personal contacts and anything else which will inch her closer to the man who nearly ended her life.

The Shining Girls is a surprisingly brutal read. Despite knowing the basic plot synopsis I was expecting something less in-your-face but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of attitude pouring from the pages. While there is a great deal of violence it is never gratuitous, serving to drive home just what Harper is stealing from the world and also lending some colour to his continuing descent into insanity. The more gruesome aspects are balanced out by Kirby's relationship with her mentor at the newspaper and by the loving detail which is put into the descriptions of Chicago through the ages, demonstrating a remarkable familiarity for a South African author.

I'll be honest though, I'm a sci-fi fan at heart so it was the time travel mechanics which grabbed me. The idea of the house seemingly taking control of its occupants (not only Harper...) and leading them into these acts spread across time was original and very well implemented. Not once did Beukes feel the need to delve into the whys and wherefores of what was happening, it's simply left to the reader to soak up and mull over - which I did at length. On the way she raised some interesting questions and there is a constant battle, escalating towards the book's climax, over whether the agents are acting of their own free will and altering destinies or whether this path was set in stone for them all along. It's a question left unresolved and seems all the more satisfying for it.

All in all The Shining Girls has a lot to recommend it to a wide readership. The core of the story is essentially a traditional serial killer tale with enough fresh elements to appeal to the hardened thriller crowd. Kirby is a strong and vibrant heroine who will readily appeal to the more rebellious female readers out there, not to mention the guys. And as mentioned there is a wonderful plot device in the twisted magic house, edging the book into sci-fi/fantasy territory as well as allowing the readers to explore life in a number of modern eras. Definitely a book to put on your summer reading list.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  The Shining Girls available from bookish places now.

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