The conceit of traveling through time isn't just a common trope in genre fiction, film, and games; it's a concept so fundamentally intriguing to the human imagination that examples of it can be found in folklore the world over. From the Mahabharata to the Nihon Shoki to the Talmud, the idea of individuals slipping through time à la Rip Van Winkle is nothing new. The trope exploded in popularity in western nineteenth century literature, and has hardly waned since—you would be hard pressed to find someone today unfamiliar with the setup.
With familiarity comes a certain series of expectations, and the modern reader is better equipped than any previous audience to detect the slightest inconsistency in a time travel narrative. For some readers, a single, unintentional paradox can derail the believability of the whole affair, and once one's suspension of disbelief has been overly taxed it can be very difficult to restore it. By the same token, a lot of the fun to be had in time travel texts is paying close attention to see how this or that potential paradox will be addressed by the creator; while a seemingly small oversight can spoil the game, few twists are more laudable than those which seem to be inconsistent with the greater plot, only to have the time travel element address and explain these particular problems. With The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes delivers that best-case time travel tale scenario: a work that does everything right, teasing the reader with potential paradoxes yet always restoring a consistent narrative, and one where the time travel element never overshadows the emotional core of the novel yet is essential to the plot.
The novel opens with a name and date, and each chapter follows this format; always an asset for tracking the action in a time travel text, especially one that follows several characters instead of staying tight on one individual for the duration, as in, for example, Heinlein's The Door into Summer (1957). The opening tight third person point of view introduces us to Harper Curtis, a man intently watching a little girl playing by herself in a yard in 1974 Chicago. Even without the clues Beukes sows through this opening, the very fact that Harper approaches this child and insists on giving her a toy would be discomfiting. What twists this already uncomfortable, unsolicited gift-giving scene into something truly chilling is the conclusion of their exchange:
He is feeling calmer already. Everything is as it is has to be. "Now keep this safe, all right? It's real important. I'll come to get it. You understand?"
"Because I need it. How old are you right now?"
"Six and a half."
"That's great. Really great. Here we go. Round and round. Just like your ferris wheel. I'll see you when you're all grown-up. Look out for me, okay, sweetheart? I'll come back for you." (p. 6)
Harper Curtis, we come to find, is a man of his word . . . and a serial killer who travels through time, preying exclusively on women. Like all serial killers, Harper has certain rituals and habits that guide his behavior, and draw him to his victims. Unlike any killer before him, even in the province of genre fiction, Harper is driven to visit his victims when they are children, and then return to murder them when they are adults. What might have been a cheesy setup is positively horrifying in Beukes's deft hands, especially as she expands the range of tight third person perspectives to include those of Harper's victims.
The first victim we are introduced to, Kirby Mazrachi, becomes the protagonist of the text even before she survives Harper's attempt on her life. She is a young woman when the attack comes, but we've already grown attached to bright, bold Kirby through glimpses into her childhood and adolescence. We come to find out she survived the attempt on her life by a mysterious killer long before that scene is played out for us, though, Beukes telling her story in a marvelously satisfying disjointed order. Telling a complex time travel story sounds hard enough without adding the complication of narrative jumps in time (as opposed to the literal sort), but Beukes not only makes it work, she makes it seem like it couldn't possibly be told any other way. The latter half of the novel does slide into a more linear groove, but this seems to be an obvious narrative choice based on the story becoming more action based.
As Beukes is letting us into Kirby's world, piece by piece, she's also thrusting us into Harper's. America is on the brink of the Great Depression, and Harper is just another bindlestiff trying to make his way in the Chicago jungles. Or so he would like people to believe—he's a pretty rough customer, violent and mean, and not above the casual murder if it furthers his cause. What that cause is beyond evading his enemies, not even Harper seems to know . . . until he discovers the House. A boarded-up, abandoned residence on a quiet street, the interior of the building seems to exist outside of time, and when Harper steps back outside it's into different times. The House is the constant, as is Chicago, and through Harper's sadistic quest to hunt down certain women, his "shining girls," the reader experiences myriad snapshots into the city's past. Beukes never lets the city and its history distract from the story, but as with her version of Johannesburg in Zoo City (2010), Beukes's Chicago itself is so richly rendered that it becomes a character in and of itself.
She follows [her dog] down the path to the beach through the rustling corridor of overgrown grass. She should have parked closer to the actual beach, but she's used to coming here at weekend lunchtimes when you can't find an empty bay for money or love. It's a totally different place without the crowds. Ominous even, with the mist and the cold wind off the lake scything through the grass that would have put off all but the most dedicated joggers. (p. 134)
Although Beukes is careful to never beat the reader over the head with it, the titular "shining girls" whom Harper hunts across time share the commonality of being strong, determined women who, consciously or not, are working to improve their world. This of course makes their deaths at the hands of a misogynistic monster all the more horrifying than if his victims were randomly selected, although Harper never consciously realizes why he is being guided to these particular women.
After Kirby survives Harper's murder attempt, she devotes her life to tracking down the man who brutally assaulted her, but as the reader already knows, Harper is hiding out in the 1930s, which will make finding him and pining him for the crime impossible . . . unless he comes forward to her time again. Or unless Kirby figures out how to go back to his.
Although Kirby initially has no reason to suspect Harper is a time traveler, she does believe he's a serial killer, despite the police having closed the case. Looking for a means of launching a personal investigation, Kirby interns with the Chicago Sun-Times as a junior reporter. At the newspaper she buddies up with veteran newshound Dan, a former crime beat reporter who burned out and switched to covering baseball. Dan becomes a key player in the story, and his friendship with Kirby lends the novel both a much-needed possibility of a better future.
As Harper continues his murderous rampage across Chicago's past, Kirby begins to unravel the mystery, with Dan's discouragement acting as a believable foil to her relentless hunt to find a man who doesn't even exist in her time. When Harper finds out that Kirby survived his initial attempt on her life, Beukes sets all parties on a harrowing collision course. It's a tense, visceral read from the get-go, but as Beukes reels in all the various threads she laid out in the first act the reader begins to appreciate just how clever and nuanced a work this really is.
Coming after Zoo City, with its distinct first person narration and future-fantasy setting, a novel set largely in the past with several third person narrators may seem like a huge departure for Beukes. Yet everything that Beukes demonstrated in her previous novel is here in spades, such as her gifts for subtly exploring social issues by building damaged but undaunted characters and crafting tight, twisting plots for said characters to explore, along with an expanded, epic scope that still manages to feel intimate and meticulously constructed. Add to all this the fact that Beukes is pulling it all off while telling a taut, paradox-free time travel story and you realize that this is an author who will never take you to the same place twice, but will continuously deliver stories worth telling, told in the best way possible, every time.
In the Acknowledgements of Lauren Beukes's third novel, The Shining Girls, the South African novelist thanks "a crack team of researchers" for "digging up information, out-of-print books, videos, photographs and personal histories." There has been a short and busy few years between Beukes's Clarke Award-winning Zoo City (2010) and this global behemoth, in which she has been the subject of a publishing bidding war and presumably the pressures that go with a six-figure sum. Her researchers have delivered the data Beukes no doubt needed to switch suddenly from the fascinating local Cape Town color of her early science fictional novels to the grim Chicago noir of this bloody slasher-cum-thriller. The problem is that it has been applied rather anxiously.
The Shining Girls is without doubt readable: there are miscues—nerves twang like a banjo, or axles of corruption are greased with donut glaze—but Beukes's prose here has more momentum than ever, each taut sentence snapping the reader with a whip-crack into the next. Her chapters are short and structured, her plot lightning-quick yet cannily deferred. It is rare that a shift of perspective jars or disconnects, rarer still that the placement of a flashback or an ellipsis feels poorly judged. On this level of craft, then, Beukes has delivered the kind of book which will be devoured and enjoyed by readers. The Shining Girls is a bravura entertainment.
It also, however, has other aims. At its best, Beukes's writing is not just functional but attractive, and she is capable of an unusually successful alliance of the popular with the literary. Her previous novels have not just been gung-ho grippers, but also thoughtfully irreverent treatments of theme and extrapolative concept. The Shining Girls continues that aesthetic, but—perhaps in direct relation with its relatively greater success as a thriller—rather less well than Zoo City. That novel had a messier plot, but was smarter and more considered. Ultimately, The Shining Girls reads like a dream—but offers little traction.
Take its central conceit: Harper, an unemployed war veteran in Depression-era Chicago, stumbles into a House (it is always capitalized) which he soon comes to realize has a purpose, and a power, quite beyond him. "The House has been waiting for him," he thinks. "It called him here for a purpose" (p. 34). Harper is not a good man—on the way to the House, he murders a woman, suffocating her with his hand in the sort of accidental-on-purpose killing which often happens to incipient Hollywood psychopaths. He is also, however, a man forgotten by the society he fought for and a disturbed child who allowed a truck he was driving to roll over his older brother's legs ("it didn't occur to him to pick up the handbrake" (p. 250)). There's an attempt here to complicate the killer, but despite Harper's subsequent crimes—of which more shortly—it's hard to shake the idea that the House, not Harper, is responsible for them. "The House demands more," he feels. "It wants potential—to claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out" (p. 64).
The fiery eyes about to be snuffed, of course, are those of the shining girls of the title. Harper/the House have a fascination—an obsession—with young women who are in some way self-possessed or independent, skilful or in solidarity with their sex. The House is a nexus in time—its ability to send Harper through its doors to whichever year he wishes is never explained or examined—and this allows its inhabitant to traverse the twentieth century, murdering a war-time welder, an abortion clinic worker in the 1970s, a transgender dancer, a gifted scientist, and other and varied remarkable women. The wider point seems to be gesturing towards the way in which violence towards women is a cultural force, limited to not one individual or time period, but ever-present and responsible in large part for the snuffing out of not just a dozen women but a dozen opportunities for female advancement. "You shouldn't shine," Harper sneers at one of his victims. "You shouldn't make me do this" (p. 167).
In a more rounded novel, this would be an important and interesting topic to tackle. In The Shining Girls, its implications becomes muddled and muddied. In part, this is because, even as Harper's crimes become increasingly depraved and psychosexual, the goading presence and enabling power of the House can lead the reader to understand him as not quite responsible for his actions. Worse still, all that research is brought to be bear in short and isolated chapters written from the viewpoint of each victim, a structural choice which can become wearying once the reader understands that each and every one of these women is about to meet a very nasty end, and has no time for anything by the most schematic of set-ups. Beukes's attempt to make Harper's misogyny a kind of universal force results in thumbnail sketches of his victims: here's the psychologically damaged artist, there's the conflicted showgirl; at one moment we're in a sort of collage of all the 1970s communes you've ever seen on TV, and at another we're in a generic speakeasy, all 1920s frisson and flappers. This does a disservice to each of Harper's victims, even as the novel spends long sections conjuring his own 1930s milieu best of all.
Beukes struggles to contain all that research, and the novel is replete with odd little factoids: "Divorce rates among cops are higher than the national average," we're told (p. 203); "suburban developments are going to transform the lives of working class families," evangelizes a 1950s community organizer (p. 139). The Shining Girls creaks under its attempt to develop a sense of place, to convince us that it is set in Chicago, and not any old other city. It never quite succeeds, and other than the novel's intended global commercial audience, it'd hard to see why Beukes felt the need to choose Chicago's straitjacket at all.
The only one of her female characters that extends beyond a thumbnail sketch is Kirby, a wisecracking woman of the 1990s who narrowly survives one of Harper's gruesome attacks—she stumbles out of the woods with her guts spilling out and the killer's knife embedded in the spine of her pet dog—and takes it upon herself to investigate, and link, a number of murders through the decades of women upon whose person has been left an anachronistic object: a baseball card printed years later, or an Art Deco cigarette lighter in the pocket of a non-smoker with no interest in vintage accessories. Harper, of course, has grown arrogant in the way of network TV master criminals, and is strewing the decades with the spoils of his time-traveling killing sprees. Much of the novel's tension is derived from Harper's essentially impossible crime: will Kirby and Dan, her supervisor at an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times (cue more research about newsrooms), figure out that the killer isn't a father-son team? How can anyone stop a man who can slip between decades? Beukes teases us expertly. When the denouement comes, however, it is an inevitable disappointment that it amounts to two men duking it out in the street, and a final reckoning between the woman and the psychopath who wronged her.
The Shining Girls often reads like the shooting script of its own adaptation—sharp, terse, summative—and while this lends it an enviable economy and addictive impetus, it also lends even its tenderer, quieter scenes an air of the artificial. Kirby's dialogue, in particular, rings hollow, as does her romance with Dan.
"It doesn't work, what you're doing, deflecting with humor. Just tells me that there's something you need to deflect from."
"Years on the homicide beat had made him a keen-eyed observer of humanity, a philosopher of life," she intones in a movie trailer voice, two octaves down.
"Still doing it," says Dan. His cheeks are hot. She gets to him in a way that's infuriating. (p. 99)
Kirby's relationship with her mother is better drawn, but never does she quite escape the bathetic quip: Beukes wants Kirby to be a lively presence, but most often she's simply not half as clever as she wants or, for the purposes of the plot, needs to be. It's hard not to avoid the conclusion that, again, these are the wages of the North American setting: Kirby is significantly less world-weary than Zoo City's Zinzi, but the latter nevertheless had a more appealing, because more convincing, character; it seems an increasing shame as one proceeds through The Shining Girls that one of South Africa's newest and most exciting writers didn't retain that instinctive feel for voice with this, her break-out blockbuster.
Still, it's impossible to begrudge Beukes her success. She writes with verve and skill, and if The Shining Girls is less than the complete statement it intended itself to be, and perhaps should and could have been, it is nevertheless a supple and sly caper which offers a good deal more than its rivals in that section of the bookstore. If Kirby's insistence that "my life is not a fucking comic book" (p. 122) doesn't quite ring true in this at times schematic, occasionally melodramatic novel, it is certainly true that nor is it a thoughtless airport thriller. Beukes has proved her facility on the big stage; one hopes that next time she and her research team will have a little more time to apply that dexterity with the care of which we know she is capable.
Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death, and the recently released The Folly of the World. His short fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he can be found online at www.jessebullington.com, as well as similarly disreputable locales.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.