The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: Time Travel, a Serial Killer, and the Girl Who Lived
Glowgirl. Alice. Margot. Mysha. Kirby. Catherine. Jin-Sook. Willie. Zora.
A dancer. A carnival show worker. An underground abortionist. A budding scientist. A college student. A painter. An optimistic housing worker. An architect. A WW2-era welder with 4 kids.
Curtis Harper, a Depression-era drifter in Chicago, stumbles across a house on skid row that can shift through time. The House can communicate — and what it wants is to harvest the potential that shines out of these women. Why? Curtis doesn’t know. He just decides to follow orders, and he’s willing to link these murders together through significant items that the victims carry. Thus, a baseball card owned by one woman is found on the body of another one murdered decades before, and so on — a chain of death spanning through time, with Curtis as its unholy maker.
Kirby Mazrachi was destined to be just another link in that chain — just another life full of vitality and potential reaped to fulfill some twisted plan.
But she survived.
Now, in the early 90s, she’s committed to identifying her attacker and seeing if there were other women out there who met the fate she was lucky enough to escape.
The Shining Girls is a grim book full of lives that are truncated, broken, or just warped. And yet, it’s compelling as hell. This is a book I’ve been intending to read for quite a while, but it was only when I was waiting in a hospital emergency room that I looked over what was loaded on my Kobo and saw that this was sitting there still unread. (I was in the emergency room because I had spilled freshly boiled water on my hand while attempting to brew some tea. I got a white blistery burn on my thumb about an inch long. Second-degree burns are awesome!)
It turns out that this book is the perfect accompaniment for the kind of sleep-deprived haze that results when waiting to see an overworked, equally sleep-deprived ER nurse. The story meshed well with the insomniac stress buzz of the evening.
This is partly due to the relentless lurching between different time periods. Beukes has mastered the storytelling maxim of “get in late, get out early” — show only what you need to show. Each scene in The Shining Girls is a master class in presenting only the essence of a specific moment.
This economy of prose is particularly impressive when you realize that the storyline isn’t truly linear. The most linear progression of plot happens from Curtis’s point of view, when he stumbles upon the House and decides to obey its wishes by killing each Shining Girl in a specific order. He leapfrogs across time, and the injuries and fetish objects he collects help orient the reader during the time jumps. When did Curtis take the childhood toy from Jin-Sook? In the early 90s. When did he give the same toy to Kirby as a child? In the mid 70s. Curtis also uses the dog bite he incurred during the attack on Kirby in the mid-80s as an alibi for a different murder when he jumps back to the 50s. The tactile/visual information associated with each incident allows us to keep our thinking straight.
Beukes is also amazing at writing interactions where characters reveal the conflicting impulses behind their actions that we all experience, even when we try to present a smooth exterior to the world. Here’s a masterful example, taken from the scene where Curtis attempts to kill Kirby:
But he’s not done yet. She groans and tries to twist away before the tip of the blade even touches her skin. He pats her shoulder, grinning savagely, his hair plastered down and sweaty from the exertion. “Scream louder, sweetheart,” he says hoarsely. His breath smells like caramel. “Maybe someone will hear you.”
He slides the knife home and twists it across. She screams as loudly as she can, the sound muffled by the ball, and instantly despises herself for obeying him. And then grateful that he let her. Which makes the shame worse. She can’t help it. Her body is a separate animal to her mind, which is a shameful, bargaining thing, willing to do anything to make it stop. Anything to live. Please, God.
The characters are also extremely rich, even when they’re not interacting with anyone. Kirby is determined and resourceful, and she becomes a newspaper intern so she can do historical research to see if the MO of her attacker follows any historical pattern. Thus, Curtis’s attempt to kill her sows the seeds of his own destruction.
And Curtis himself? He’s an ugly piece of work. Instead of a smirking mastermind leading cops on a cat-and-mouse chase, Curtis is a loser, a man unaware of how his own habits give him away to his victims. It’s even implied that the House may not want him to kill these women — that his actions are just his interpretation of what the House shows him:
“Shut up,” he says. The boy looks like he might burst into tears. He stares, lip trembling, and then bolts into the crowd. Harper barely notices. He is tracing his fingertip over the lines drawn between the stars, transfixed. Big Dipper. Little Dipper. Ursa Major. Orion with his belt and sword. But they could just as easily be something else if you connected the dots differently. And who is to say that is a bear or a warrior at all? It damn well doesn’t look that way to him. There are patterns because we try to find them. A desperate attempt at order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random. He feels undone by the revelation. He has the sensation of losing his footing, as if the whole damn world is stuttering.
The violent acts depicted here are meant for us to sympathize with the victims: instead of the loving glorification of a woman’s broken and bloody body, we see these women attempt to fight back, and mourn the loss of their potential when they fail. You like seeing women fridged? I can hear Beukes ask. Fine. But it will cost you.
Despite this, there are still some elements of The Shining Girls that nag at me. By the end of the book, we never understand what the House’s purpose is and where it came from. I recognize that this is the way it needs to be, that any sort of origin story we can think up for the House obliterates whatever dread it evokes when we think about its presence. However, I still feel a certain need for closure.
I’m also not a huge fan of the presence of causality loops in a time-travel narrative — they just make my mind feel like a moebius strip.
In the end, The Shining Girls is a twisty, gritty, bloody little book with a propulsive plot and a disconcerting coffee-buzz sensation to it. I’m glad I read it, though I doubt it’s a world I’d want to return to.