Monday, 13 May 2013

The Shining Girls: Beukes's constellation of murder

This review was originally published in Perdeby on 6 May 2013.

A tweet about a time-travelling serial killer is the saucy idea behind Lauren Beukes’s new novel. After her lightbulb moment, the darling of South African modern fiction quickly deleted the tweet and promptly got to work on The Shining Girls

Set in Chicago, it tells the story of Harper Curtis, a twisted, despicable sort of man who stumbles upon a house that allows him to travel through time. He uses it to stalk and kill “the shining girls”, women who beam gloriously with potential. 

When one of his victims survives, Harper’s plan unravels horribly. With the help of cynical sports hack Dan Velasquez, gutsy Kirby Mazrachi doggedly tries to find the man who almost took her life and she won’t let anything stop her. What ensues is a grim, disturbing tale about a serial killer’s insatiable bloodlust and what happens when the roles of the hunter and the hunted become violently entangled. 

Each chapter of The Shining Girls is told from a different person’s perspective, providing a ticket to the inner workings of every character’s mind. We learn that the kooky Kirby is deeply frayed by her kiss with death and this triggers her unrelenting mission to find her would-be killer. Beukes offers another strong female protagonist, much like the flawed Zinzi December in Zoo City, who ultimately displays quite heroic and admirable qualities. 

Lauren Beukes reading an extract from The Shining Girls. 
In this way, we also co-inhabit Harper’s perverse mind. This insight into what makes him tick and what fuels his killing spree through the decades offers a refreshing take on the archetype serial killer because Harper is in no way glamorised. Throughout the novel, there is no doubt that he is an appalling human being and this makes him all the more frightening. 

Similarly, the deaths of Harper’s victims aren’t glamorised either. Beukes devotes at least one chapter to each victim, which allows their minds to be interrogated. The focus is more on their lives and what made them shine, rather than their grisly deaths. 

At the heart of it, The Shining Girls is a novel about violence against women and how this violence has a ripple effect through a community, even though the extent to which it is a socially corrective can be debated. It’s a novel that reflects who we are and interrogates the present by transporting us to an alternate world that is, in many ways, not too different from our own. This is perhaps a difficult pill to swallow, but The Shining Girls is the sweet spoonful of sugar that helps the bitter medicine go down.

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