Lauren Beukes novel The Shining Girls is a strong contender for this Summer’s Must-Read book. A dizzying cocktail of serial killer tale and time travel adventure, she’s written a tale that is already being buzzed about with a level of fervor practically guaranteeing you’ll see copy after copy on airplanes and beaches. Perhaps you’re the type of reader who looks at this kind of popularity critical mass and passes over the book in question. You draw the corollary that a certain level of popularity means a lessening of quality. You point to Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code as your proof; that the enormous buzz and success of that book proves what’s popular with scads of “I don’t normally read” kinds of readers indicates a sub-par product. That’s certainly a choice you’re welcome to make but wow would that be a colossal mistake.
Harper Curtis, a forgotten man struggling for survival in Chicago during the height of the Great Depression, stumbles onto a key, which leads him to a house, where he has already written the names and posed pictures of young girls. These are his Shining Girls, his carefully selected victims. This house he’s escaped into presents Harper with an opportunity for safety in a dangerous time, and he’s very willing to fulfill a destiny it seems he’s mapped out for himself.
One of his intended victims, however, has no desire to accept her place in Harper’s cracked vision. Kirby Mazrachi has managed to survive his attack, and is now hunting Harper. She digs for his trail, first through an overworked Chicago police system all too happy to mark her file closed and forget her. Later she interns with the Chicago Sun-Times to mine their records for details that might lead her to the man who shattered her. Her survival and the deaths of the other girls are a mystery confined to microfiche, shelved away and forgotten. Kirby refuses to accept this, and sets out to track down her killer through records, fading memories, and time itself. She was after all attacked by Harper about sixty years after he found the house.
Beukes has given her readers rich, vibrant characters in both Kirby and Harper. Kirby is a bold, intelligent, fierce woman. Harper believes the girls he targets have potential, a raw energy that sets them apart from the drab ordinariness of other lives. Kirby embodies this, and each time she appears you pick up on how she vibrates a raw energy that makes her far from ordinary.
Harper as well is far from ordinary, though he tries to pretend to himself and others there’s nothing special about him. Harper wears the guise of just another Hooverville dweller, knocked down and just trying to survive. Under that, though, is a man who is careful and thoughtful in his preparations, and who was willing to kill even before discovering his Shining Girls. He’s a ruthless killer, and dangerous to underestimate.
Beukes’ presentation of time travel is left intentionally vague, she doesn’t spend time explaining the mechanics of how the house functions. She instead presents the unsettling effect moving through time has on her characters, describing events out of chronological sequence as they jump through time. An approach like this requires a steady guide to give readers the assurance the author knows where they’re going. You never doubt Lauren Beukes knows exactly what she’s doing, and builds a twisting, chilling story. It’s the kind of rich storytelling those who demean genre will try to classify as “Literary.” The Shining Girls is a captivating book regardless of what genre you normally read, the kind that steals time from you and demands you keep turning pages.