The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
It isn’t often that a book comes around and refuses to sit in one neat genre– it just
isn’t polite. Usually a book can be allocated its genre within a moment of reading the blurb and glancing at the jacket. But then there’s The Shining Girls, which gleefully refuses to pick a genre box to sit in, and decides that it will timeshare in several. The Shining Girls is part crime thriller, part speculative fiction, part sci-fi. It also makes time to touch on a variety of subjects, including baseball, journalism, women’s resistance movements and the Depression, which is a delicious smorgasbord of ideas that also don’t overcrowd each other.
In brief, violent drifter Harper Curtis is a man in trouble, and stumbles into a house that offers the solution to all of his problems. But the house has a secret, and an exacting price. The house can open onto different times, but if Harper wants to stay in the house, then he must hunt down and cut the fire out of the shining girls, women who are special within their own times. And so begins Harper’s killing spree across decades, which comes to him with ease and terrifying glee. But when he fails to kill Kirby, she turns the hunt back on him with unrelenting determination.
This is not an easy book to read: it deals with suffering, with absolutely brutal violence and the worst that humans can do to each other. Each shining girl is profound in her potential, and each murder is highlighted for its horrific waste of a life. So often are the female victims in crime books delineated as props, just treated as a way to highlight the cleverness of the murderer. And Harper isn’t clever – he’s a disgusting lowlife who is willing to kill for a nice house to live in. Which is why Kirby is so much more interesting than most female leads in books these days. She’s smart but not savant-smart, she fights with her mom, makes mistakes and is truly brave. She could be any one of us, because those are the same markers of all the shining girls: they’re all women making the very best of what has been given to them regardless of their circumstances.
My only criticism of this book is that I wish it had been longer. When meeting Beukes at the launch of The Shining Girls, I could tell that there were vast swathes of research that didn’t make it into the book. Granted, its current incarnation keeps it moving briskly and there isn’t a wasted word. It has been beautifully edited (which is becoming a rarity, sadly) and there’s nothing wrong with its current length. I love all the details – the underground abortion group, the Glow Girl, the McCarthy witch-hunts – I just wish there had been time to explore all of them more. Perhaps another hundred pages could have done the trick. I also loved that this was an unabashedly feminist book. I know feminism has become something of a dirty word in publishing, but it is about time that a book about crime actually dealt with the violence perpetuated against women rather than using it as a lazy plot-point. It is especially sad when female writers treat their female victims as disposable – seeing each victim realised in such heart-breaking detail is as important as it is unusual.
Of course, the time travel element adds another delicious layer. Hardcore sci-fi fans will be disappointed that it isn’t more central to the novel, but the time travel allows for an exploration of different decades, in which we see how much (and how little) has changed. While researching the novel, Beukes travelled to Chicago and many of the photos she took while she was there appear on the South African jacket. In fact, the jacket only reveals its secrets as one progresses through the novel, which is a delight in and of itself. Produced by the amazing home-grown Joey Hi-Fi, the jacket’s many elements tie into the shining girls themselves, the time periods the novel crosses and moments that enrich the background of the story.
I say it again: this is sometimes an uncomfortable book to read, as well it should be. Violence should never be passively consumed, nor lightly discussed. The characters, good and evil, leap large from the pages. The settings are consuming, and it is easy to lose yourself in the detail. And if your nightmares reflect your bedtime reading, then keep this for daytime. But you will be hard-pressed to find a book this creative, this interesting and this powerful this year.