Monday, 29 April 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes | Time-travelling darkness

I was really excited to read Lauren Beukes’ latest novel The Shining Girls, not just because I enjoyed her previous novels Moxyland and Zoo City, but also because she’s moved her writing in a new direction. Her previous novels were dark dystopias set in respectively Cape Town and Joburg. Amongst South African writers, Beukes’ is a breath of fresh air, an author who doesn’t feel the need to be so political all the time (not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing). In The Shining Girls Beukes moves the setting to Chicago, and it is more crime fiction than sci-fi, although the time-travelling element does give it an undeniable hint of the fantastic.

So we have Harper, a time-travelling murderer originating in the 1930s. After stumbling upon the House, Harper goes on a killing spree stretching decades. His ability to travel in time makes him the perfect serial killer. Apart from his victims’ severed bodies, he only leaves behind tokens, impossible signs that he was there. Harper’s victims are shining girls. Their inner light is so bright he just wants to extinguish it. One of the shining girls is Kirby. Her light might just be too bright for Harper to handle.

Kirby is the shining girl who didn’t die. After the police failed to find her killer, Kirby decides to take matters into her own hands. We meet her in 1993 when she interns at the Chicago newspaper the Sun-Times. Under cover of interning in the sports department, Kirby at turns flatter, at turns threaten, to get access to files and clippings on murders similar to her own attempted murder. With the help of her boss Dan, Kirby starts to get closer and closer to an impossible answer.

The story jumps back and forth in time. We follow Harper as he visits his victims as little girls, giving them a token to hold into until he comes back for them, and then eventually as he goes back to finish the job as the girls have become young women. We also follow Harper as he goes about his life in 1932, trying to build a sort of relationship with a not so innocent nurse. It’s interesting how differently the girls respond to Harper’s presence; some with fear and trepidation, others with joy and anticipation. –Until they realise what he’s there for, that is. Similarly, Harper also feels differently towards the girls. One of the girls and Harper have this magnetic connection, almost as if they were meant to be lovers. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work out.

One of the things I really enjoy about Lauren Beukes’ writing is that it’s so scenic. I can pretty much see it as a movie (and it would be totally awesome!). The jumping in time would translate so well on screen. I know I would like to see the gritty Chicago setting of 1932 contrasting (?) the grungy 90s setting. Hopefully Nick Cave would make the soundtrack.

The only drawback for me personally, was that I wanted the story to be scarier. With the jumping in time, it might be that since I already knew x amounts of girls would die in a really horrible way, but that Kirby had (already) survived her dreadful murder attempt, it didn’t have the same build-up of tension and fear. That said, I went for a night time jog after finishing the book inside the estate I’m on. We’re talking fences all the way around, and me on a pathway only partly lit. The fences mean that only residents of the estate and their guests have access to the area. That didn’t stop me from running faster than ever, never daring to look behind me in case a tree suddenly looked like a man (with a knife), and that two birds mating by the pond startled me out of my skin.

The Shining Girls is a really enjoyable piece of sci-fi crime/ crime sci-fi (whichever sounds best). I would like to peek inside Beukes’ head, but to be honest I’d be too scared to. The Shining Girls is Beukes’ best book to date in my opinion, so now I’m excited to see what more she has up her sleeve. Umuzi’s marketing efforts have so far proven successful. The book is selling really well (in my shop it went straight to #1 in a week), so I just hope my South African customers (who haven’t read her earlier works) realise that South African literature is about so much more than what they’ve seen so far.

To get the full darkness of The Shining Girls be sure to play Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Murder Ballads” while reading. But whatever you do, read the book. Just read it. Now.

No comments: