A serial killer is at a serious advantage when they can jump through time at will, as Harper Curtis of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls can. This does not bode well for Kirby Mazrachi, intended victim of said serial killer who should’ve died after Harper sliced open her stomach and slit her throat. But Kirby miraculously survived the attack and is determined to find the man that derailed her life.
The problems with trying to find a time-travelling serial killer, however, are obvious. Harper Curtis jumps between 1929 and 1993, killing his ‘shining girls.’ Quite why they shine is never explicitly explained, but they all have the potential to change the world in some way. Harper is able to time travel through the House (note the capital H), an entity which is, again, left somewhat unexplained. There is a room upstairs with the names of his future victims scrawled on the walls and totems from each murder: a pair of butterfly wings, a baseball card, a pill packet. Harper instinctively follows the energy of the House and opens the front door into different time periods that allow him to track down and kill his girls.
Meanwhile, Kirby has become an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times to work alongside Dan, an ex-crime journalist who reported on her case. A lovesick divorcé, Dan quickly comes into focus as the apparent love interest of the story, and actually the dynamics between he and Kirby really work. As Kirby delves deeper and deeper into the case, Dan is torn between humouring what he believes is her false conviction that she can catch her would-be killer, and trying to persuade himself out of his feelings for Kirby. It’s an unusual pairing, but refreshingly so.
Where The Shining Girls falls short is in its depiction of Harper Curtis. This is probably because there is no way of making a despicable character relatable or sympathetic; ergo there is very little compulsion to read about him. His sadistic streak is left wholly unexplained: we never really find out how he became this way, or why, or when. He’s just following the whim of the House with a capital H and that seems to be all Beukes felt we needed to know. Whilst the story was riveting and hurtled along at breakneck speed, the gaping unexplained bits of the magical house and its heartless inhabitant were too big too ignore. Just a little bit of background was all it would’ve taken.
Plotting did, at times, go a bit skewiff. In the end chapters, we have viewpoints of multiple characters jammed together into one chapter. And it’s not just characters, but timeframes too. One fight begins in spring of 1993 and bursts out into winter of 1929. Whilst this is undeniably cool, the ending could’ve done with slightly tighter plotting.
Gripes aside, this was a highly enjoyable read. Kirby Mazrachi makes an excellent heroine: gutsy, original and compulsive. All the shining girls are. There is a communist architect of the 1950s, a black employee of the Chicago Bridge and Iron company, a transgender fair performer. The scope and depth of the women in the novel are astounding (it’s a shame they all have to die…). The Shining Girls is an original take on both the serial killer and time travelling tropes, and with such fresh, believable characters, you will have a hard time putting it down.
Harper, the anti-hero of Lauren Beukes’s terrific novel The Shining Girls, is a killer. He chooses his victims when they are just girls, giving them something special – a toy, something that glitters, a hair decoration — and speaking with them as if he is a friend, even introducing himself. Sometimes he finds it hard to control his violence during these visits, thinking about how easily he could kill them then and there, as well as the nauseating details of how he would do it. Then, when the girls are in their twenties or a bit younger, Harper returns to them and dispatches them, making a clean escape every time. He leaves behind a souvenir, an artifact from another victim. And he is nearly impossible to catch.
The reason he is able to visit his victims as children, find them again as adults, and elude capture, is that he has a time portal. He happens upon it accidentally in 1931, when he breaks into a boarded-up and condemned house in Chicago. He kills the occupant of the house and discovers its odd properties. More, he finds the proper dress and currency for other times. And he finds the room in which the history of the shining girls of the title — the girls he will kill — has been documented in his own handwriting. We never learn the origins of this room or this house, or how the time portal works, but we don’t really need that information. What we need to know is that Harper is a psychopath who has just stumbled onto a means to commit serial murder that is just about perfect.
One of Harper’s victims is Kirby. But he messed up with her; she survived, her toughness serving her well. In 1992, she’s a college student who is interning with the Chicago Sun-Times, using her position with the newspaper to investigate her own attempted murder. She is assigned to Dan Velasquez at her request. Dan is a sports reporter, which ought to make it hard to get access to information about murders, but Dan used to be a homicide reporter and Kirby has done her homework. Right up front she makes it clear that she doesn’t care how the Cubs are doing, or even know the first thing about baseball. She’s only asked for Dan because there were no internships with homicide reporters available. Dan covered her attempted murder, and he becomes intrigued with her search for her would-be murderer — and with her.
The Shining Girls seesaws from Kirby’s viewpoint to Harper’s and back again, and throws in a few more viewpoints from time to time. Beukes is careful to keep us oriented by heading each chapter with the name of the viewpoint character and the date, so that the reader is never left scratching her head to try to figure out where and when she is (a flaw of many novels about time travel). The characterization is sharp, especially as to Kirby; she is not the standard loveable heroine of many tales, but a young woman who is determined to get what she wants and not particularly concerned about what she needs to do to get it. I enjoyed her strength and determination, even as her hardness became more apparent.
But the real star of this book is the meticulous plotting. We follow Harper as he hops around in time, committing a murder now and a murder then, leaving clues that make no real sense to the police. Better, we follow Kirby as she unravels the Gordian knot of these crimes, making connections that make no temporal sense (how can the police explain a Jackie Robinson baseball card left at a murder scene years before Robinson was in the major leagues?), but following the clues where they lead her, no matter how impossible the solution might seem. Beukes dances us through this complicated scenario with seeming ease; I spotted no missteps that might trip up either a thriller reader or a science fiction reader.
The Shining Girls is an exciting blending and mashing of genres. I expect that science fiction, fantasy and horror readers are more likely to be satisfied with this book that thriller readers, as there is no mystery about who the bad guy is and no real suspense about what the climax of the book will be. The joy here is in watching it all unfold, in seeing how the clues link up and lead Kirby to an impossible solution. And it’s a considerable joy; The Shining Girls was one of the best books of 2013.
All of Harper Curtis’s girls shine. They have a special something; a little more curiosity, a deeper sense of wonder. They grow up to be women who will change things, maybe by being the first black woman to design airplanes, or a tough-minded architect with great ideas for high-density dwellings, maybe by being artists, writers or performers. They will change the world — or they would have, except that Harper kills them. Harper is a serial killer with a virtually perfect escape hatch that means he will never be caught. He has a house that is a time portal, allowing him to murder someone in 1982, for example, and return to his original timeline of the 1930s.
The Shining Girls is a perfect horror story. It’s also, technically at least, a thriller and the time-travel element qualifies it as science fiction. Lauren Beukes weaves the disparate elements together into an intricate plot with compelling characters.
Because he has the house, which he first encounters in 1931, Harper is poised to go on killing up and down his timeline, torturing and mutilating the young women who catch his eye. He visits them as children, and either gives them something or takes something, a trinket, a toy, a hair clip. Harper also leaves a trophy from a previous victim at each new murder scene. From his perspective, he can kill a woman one day and, the next day, visit her in her childhood. His craving for power and his hatred of these women who have potential and vision is chillingly, expertly depicted on the page. Harper is an equal-opportunity murderer, though; he will kill anyone who threatens his sick pleasure or gets in his way, whether it’s a blind woman in a Hooverville, or a doctor in a charity hospital who is too cavalier about Harper’s injury.
One of Harper’s victims, Kirby, survives the attack and is determined to bring her killer to justice. Kirby teams up with a burned-out journalist and together they begin to zero in on Harper, even though the clues they find seem unbelievable.
Read Terry’s review (above) for her observations about Beukes’s mastery of a detailed and tricky plot. The time-travel is recursive; Harper finds the trophies from his kills in a room before he remembers having killed anybody; a tennis ball is in his pocket and hanging from a nail in the wall at the same time. Once, he returns to the house on the wrong day, and finds (again) the corpse of the previous tenant on the floor. As the book progresses we find out just how Harper found the house (or it found him) and it appears less and less accidental. Any misstep in the cycles back to the house would have weakened this powerful story, and I didn’t find a single one.
What made the story horrific and compelling for me, though, were the girls themselves. There’s Kirby, the survivor, a fighter who cannot forget what was done to her and will not let it rest, even when the evidence becomes illogical and confusing. Zora is the only black woman working at Chicago Bridge and Iron Company in 1943, a war widow struggling to raise her children in the face of unrepentant inequality. Willie Rose is an architect in the 1950s. These are women, lively, powerful, flawed individuals and, having spent time with them, we feel it more keenly when they are ripped away from us. Beukes is intentional about that effect, and she carries it off perfectly.
This is the first book by Beukes that I’ve read and it makes me want to order Zoo City right now, and Broken Monsters (it’s published by Hachette so I guess I won’t be ordering from Amazon). Lauren Beukes has a powerful talent, and the Shining Girls is a powerful book.