Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes

South Afircan writer Lauren Beukes created quite a stir with her first two novels. They were published by Angry Robot, a publisher who likes to take on books that are a little different and don't easily fit into a category. Especially Beukes' second novel Zoo City (2011) attracted quite a bit of attention and won the Clarke Award in 2011. For her third book a bit of a bidding war between publishers ensued. The UK rights ended up going to HarperCollins, which is the edition I've read. Moxyland (2009)  and Zoo City were two very different books so I didn't quite know what to expect of her third novel. The Shining Girls turned out to be quite different from her previous novels.

In the early 1930s Chicago is something of a poverty stricken mess. Unemployment is high, crime even higher and Roosevelt's New Deal is still a few years off. Like so many, Great War veteran Harper Curtis has fallen unto hard times. On the run after pissing of some people you'd rather not meet in a dark ally, he stumbles into a house whose owner lies dead in the hallway. The man was obviously doing well for himself, money, good food and booze are all over the place. How he need up being murdered is a mystery to Harper. Soon, the house ensnares him in a web of murder and time travel. Compelling Harper to find his Shining Girls at several points in time and murder them. Harper finds this immensely satisfying, until one of the girls refuses to die.

Somehow I seem to have managed to pick up another time travel story. The Shining Girls is set in Chicago at various times between 1929 and 1993 and include a lot of social and historical developments in the city. She touches upon women's entry into the workforce during the second world war, the problematic position of gay transgender people in the 1950s, the Red Scare, the introduction of contraception and the abortion debate and a number of other interesting historical events. They are usually only briefly mentioned as the characters that experience them tend to be killed rather quickly. Only the life of Kriby, the one surviving victim of Harper, is chronicled in more detail.

Beukes did a lot of research for those brief sketches of certain time periods. The Radium dancers were a particularly interesting detail and one of the things not many readers will have heard about before. She could easily have been tempted to invest more in the shining girls' characters but the author keeps the novel moving. Chapters are brief and switch between Kriby and Harper, whit a number of secondary, most notably Kirby's mother and her journalist mentor/friend Dan. It must have taken something to keep the novel as concise as it is but I do think it was a wise choice. The tangle of time loops, as Harper thinks of them, would probably turn into one big Gordian knot if he spent too much time in the various time periods.

Kirby's side of the story is if anything even more interesting. She is faced with the challenge of finding a murderer who can travel time in a city where a lot of young women get murdered. The number of clues she has to work with are few indeed but her search becomes something of an obsession for her. Kriby is described as a scarred and in some ways vulnerable girl but also one who is determined to keep the search going when the rest of her world feels she should let go. Her character is developed way beyond what we get to see of Harper. Although I enjoyed reading Kriby, I wouldn't have minded understanding a bit more of Harper's motivation as well. He feels compelled to leave a trail of breadcrumbs through time, not unusual for serial killers, but why he does so remains a mystery.The true nature of the house and its influence on Harper is left up to the reader. This is not necessarily a bad thing but I did feel it left Harper a bit too much of a stereotypical psychopath.

Beukes previous novels were set in South Africa, which enabled her to work local influences and language into those stories. For me, that added to the reading experience as it is not a setting I'm usually exposed to. It was something I did miss in this novel. Chicago makes for an interesting backdrop, but with a lot of its history at leas superficially familiar to me, it wasn't quite as captivating as Kendra's exploits in near future Cape Town. That is a very personal preference of course and Beukes did succeed very well in portraying the city of Chicago throughout the 20th century. When picking this up don't expect another South African flavored novel though. It simply isn't.

With this science fiction/mystery hybrid, Beukes shows how versatile a writer she as. The three novels she has published so far have each been both difficult to fit into a particular genre as well as very different from each other. There is no telling if a novel like Zoo City or Moxyland will appeal to a reader who likes The Shining Girls but for the reader who likes to be surprised, Beukes' novels are simply a treat. I think I still like Moxyland best but truth be told, there is not much in it. Mostly Beukes choice of subject that makes the difference really. In short, The Shining Girls is another well-crafted and inventive novel by Beukes. There is even talk of making it into a television series. You may want to read it.

Book Details
Title: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 391
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-746456-2
First published: 2013

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