Sometimes an excess of pop culture knowledge is a hindrance. When I first heard that Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls dealt with a time traveling serial killer, there’s just no way I wasn’t immediately going to think of Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in pursuit of Jack the Ripper in then-modern day (but really 1979) San Francisco.
It wasn’t exactly two strikes against the book, but the baggage didn’t help. And that’s sort of a shame, going in with those preconceived notions, because The Shining Girls is all kinds of terrific.
Most notably, Beukes does some really fun stuff with narrative structure. In some ways she’s telling parallel narratives. In one of them we follow Harper, a killer who discovers a dilapidated house whose front door serves as a portal into other times. In the other we’re following Kirby, the only one of Harper’s victims to survive his attack. But rather than tell this is as a linear narrative – even one where the author alternates perspectives in each chapter – she skips around from character to character. Where we might be with Harper in 1937 in one chapter, in the next we might be with Kirby in 1994, and then with another character entirely in the next. It’s not nearly as confusing as it sounds: Beukes helpfully titles each chapter by character and year, but because she’s drawn the characters so indelibly, they’re easy to track.
So we have this bit of structural ingenuity on one hand, and on the other we have a substantial degree of playfulness afforded by the time travel conceit. When Harper discovers the house, he also discovers in an upstairs room a list of girls’ names written on the wall. The names are – title alert! – literally shining, and beside them is a collection of artifacts: a lighter, a cassette tape, a Jackie Robinson baseball card, and so on. Harper begins visiting these “shining girls” as children, talking to them or giving them one of these artifacts, and then returning to them as adults and killing them, as he believes he’s destined to do.
Cut to Kirby, one of Harper’s victims. He first tracked her down in the 1970s, giving her a plastic pony to hold, and then returned to viciously attack her in the late 80s. Now, in 1994, she’s a survivor and an intern at the Chicago Sun-Times. Paired with Dan Velasquez, a grouchy sports writer who used to work the homicide beat, Kirby sets out to find out who attacked her.
Beukes skillfully skips back and forth between the characters, and we watch as Harper works his way through his list in a variety of time periods while Kirby conducts her investigation in the early 90s. We know there will come a reckoning between the two of them – how could there not be? – especially because Harper doesn’t yet realize that Kirby survived his attack.
I’m not normally a time travel guy, but I really enjoyed The Shining Girls. There’s an infectious sense of play to the proceedings, where even though we’re watching some exceptionally grisly crimes play out and are getting caught up in the suspense of Kirby’s sleuthing, we also can’t help but admire how thoroughly Beukes has created a range of worlds in which the characters travel. Just as importantly, Kirby and Velasquez make for a compelling team, the former increasingly obsessed with finding her would-be killer and the latter basically along for the ride because he has the hots for Kirby. Harper is a little trickier to get a handle on. We never get a very satisfying reason for why he discovers the time traveling house – or why the house does what it is – but Beukes does so many entertainingly mind-bending things with loops in time that it seems a little churlish to pick at the details.
The best recommendation I can give is that the same afternoon I finished The Shining Girls, I went out and bought a couple of Beukes’ other books. Color me impressed.
XTC – White Music (1978)