Book Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

ImagePossibly one of the books recommended to me most so far this year was Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Lauren Beukes’ third novel The Shining Girls.

The story follows Harper Curtis, a heinous murderer on the run in Great Depression-era Chicago who stumbles on a strange house which he discovers allows him to move through time. He also discovers within the house a constellation-like map of girls names with everyday artifacts attached to them. What’s even more puzzling is that the names are written with his hand. He proceeds to track the girls through time, taunting and teasing them, appearing and reappearing at different points in their lives until he eventually murders them.

However things start to unravel for Harper when one of the girls, Kirby Mazrachi survives his brutal attack. Determined to find her attacker, Kirby takes an internship at a local newspaper to get close to former crime-turned-sports reporter Dan Velasquez and persuades him to help with her search.

As far as serial killers go, Harper Curtis is probably one of the deadliest we’ve seen in many years and also one of the more interesting ones. There’s no Lecter charm, no Dexter likeability factor. He is a one man juggernaut with dogged purpose and no-one will stand in his way. Besides his intended victims he has no problems despatching anyone else who causes even a slight hiccup in his plans. His methods are evil, brutal and made all the more powerful by his newfound ability which serves to amplify his desires exponentially. What I like about Lauren Beukes’ portrayal of Harper is that she doesn’t like him. She gleefully inflicts pain on him at every given opportunity and while initially slowing him down slightly, as he progresses this tends to make him even stronger.

Kirby’s character has survived a horrific attack but hasn’t dealt with it very well up to this point until she realises Harper is killing again and that she’s now in real danger and this makes her one of the strongest female characters on the block right now, right up there with Wool’s Juilette Nichols. She may be played as the Punky Youth Rebel but she’s much more than that. She’s a witty, resilient lead and (not unlike Harper) there is no stopping her once her mind is made up. Her stubbornness can get her in to trouble though and she does display some childish insensitivity towards others, particularly the families of victims she interviews.

The dynamic of her relationship with Dan is interesting. While initially refusing an intern her sassy character grows on him quite quickly. The dialogue between them both is snappy and funny and it’s clear they have very similar humour despite the obvious age gap. As the story progresses he is torn between common sense and Kirby’s seemingly impossible theories on her attacker’s movements as well as his own growing feelings for her.

The pace is relentless throughout aided of course by Harper’s abilities. Some of the criticism I’ve seen of this book is that the pace is too fast but given the power now bestowed on Harper it simply has to be. His character could not react in any other way than to jump on this murderous rollercoaster with furious intent. Be warned though, that Harper’s methods are not for the squeamish. Even the most seasoned crime reader will find this a very graphic and brutal tale with little sympathy for it’s victims.

The story flits effortlessly between time changes and from victim to victim and at no point is the reader confused which is no mean feat considering the time changes involved. Beukes has a good feel for Chicago (despite being from South Africa) and has clearly done some sterling research on the important eras involved in the plot.  My only criticism is that because of the breakneck pace of every chapter, the ending seemed ever-so-slightly premature. However the superbly structured plot will have you eagerly turning pages or prodding your eReader’s screen until all hours in what is one of the most thrilling stories you are likely to read this year.

Eamon Ambrose