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The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Book Name: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher(s): HarperCollins (UK) Mulholland Books (US)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy / Crime Thriller / Time Travel
Release Date: April 25, 2013 (UK) June 4, 2013 (US)

Lauren Beukes is probably best known for her wonderful Clarke Award winning book Zoo City, an urban fantasy set in Johannesburg. Like Zoo City, The Shining Girls can be loosely described as an ‘urban thriller’, but one that takes a different, and sometimes surprising, approach from other books of its type. This time, the city is Chicago, the focus is on a serial killer called Harper Curtis, and the supernatural element mixed into the story is time travel.

You have to give it to Lauren Beukes – mixing time travel with a serial-killer crime/thriller is genius. When Harper Curtis stumbles across a house that travels through time, he discovers a wall of mementos inside. These are objects taken from his victims, women that he will kill and has already killed. Hopping about in Chicago in the decades between the 20s and the 90s, Harper begins a series of murders that are linked only by the objects he takes from each person and leaves on the body of another, objects out of time. Meanwhile, Kirby, a girl who survived Harper’s attack, unknown to the killer, joins a newspaper team and begins working with a reporter called Dan to track down any clues as to the identity of her would-be-murderer.

I adore time travel fiction. I realise this is not everyone’s personal story-chocolate, but in that sense, this book actually has broad appeal. The time travel element is very subtle; it drives the story, but it remains very much in the background, something important but not the focus. People who are wary of the deep, complex kind of time travel that you might find in science fiction do not need to worry about this book. The time travel is similar to that of The Time Traveller’s Wife, but perhaps even more low-key. It just happens. It fuels the plot but doesn’t take over.

However, at the same time, there is plenty here to please the time travel fan. The time-loops and paradoxes created by travelling back and forth in time are all resolved, so that all loops are closed into a proper circle, and the implied ‘rules’ of the time travel are not contradictory. You won’t see any future timelines being altered due to the consequences of changing the past. Here, nothing can be ‘changed’, because any action Harper takes in the past has already happened. This is generally my preferred approach to time travel logic, and it also introduces an element of fatalism into the story that complements the idea of the serial killer being ‘compelled’ to kill. He kills the women in the story, not just because he wants to, but because he already has.

Adding time travel into the serial killer storyline also makes the typical race-to-catch-them plot so much more compelling. Harper’s motive is less obvious to investigators, and the time differences make it impossible to track or catch him. It’s all up to Dan and Kirby, and the reader will find themselves completely gripped, desperate for Harper to be stopped and for Kirby to piece together the few clues she has.

The use of a supernatural element that is subtle and in the background, but at the same time vital to the plot, may remind readers very much of Zoo City. The Shining Girls’ urban setting also reflects this earlier book. Lauren Beukes has an obvious talent for writing about cities, for bringing them to life so that they become as much a character in the stories as the people are. Here, Chicago is written brilliantly. We see the city grow and change through the years, witnessing how it affects people, and getting a sense of the city’s identity. The book also shows how history often seems to loop and repeat itself – repression and depression, cycles of politics and violence, etc come round again – which is very cleverly woven in with the time travel theme. The 90s setting for Kirby and Dan’s sections is also vividly evoked; it really brought back a lot of memories for me of growing up in those years.

One interesting element of The Shining Girls is that the time travel appears to be driven more by magic than science. The fact that this is left largely mysterious and only hinted at is a wise move; this is another skill that Lauren Beukes demonstrates again and again with her writing. I loved the suggestion at the end as to how the house seems to work, and it was really this element that rounded off the story so beautifully for me. The house had a real malevolent personality of its own that I found genuinely creepy throughout the story, so this ending felt right to me. Others who are more used to technical explanations or fully-explained magic systems may find this a little frustrating, but I considered the mixing of magic, time travel and urban setting, as well as the different genre feels, to be a real strength of the novel.

This review does need to contain a slight warning. The killings themselves are often described vividly and brutally, and the killer targets women exclusively, gaining sexual pleasure from hurting them. However, I felt that the author did a good job of neither glamorising nor glorifying the murders, and of ensuring that Harper remains a deplorable character even during his point-of-view sections. Lauren Beukes also gives each victim a voice, and she is extremely skilled at making us care for a new character in so few pages.

Harper is also countered by the character of Kirby, the girl who got away, who refuses to be a victim and does not want to be treated as one, and whose reactions and feelings are realistic throughout. She is a great character, and one who is easy to like and to root for, both in her mission to find Harper and in her life in general. It is the characters of Kirby and Dan who make this novel truly successful, as they give the reader a hint of life and continuance beyond the murders, which prevents this from simply being a book about a man who kills a lot of people. Having said that, there are many parts that are really quite disturbing, and for those who do not like reading about violence or stories that focus on serial killers, this is probably best avoided.

The Shining Girls is a gripping, exciting, and sometimes violent book that mixes elements of several different genres, with both magic and time travel added into the pot, creating a story that isn’t quite like any other. The pacing is excellent and the characters and urban setting are captivating. Readers will be on the edge of their seats the whole way through. A very impressive book.


One Comment

  1. […] FantasyFaction realises that time travel may not be “everyone’s personal story-chocolate”, but says the book has broad appeal. “The time travel element is very subtle… It fuels the plot but doesn’t take over.” […]

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