I enjoyed both of South African writer Lauren Beukes previous novels, Zoo City and her debut Moxyland – they pretty much put her on my ‘buy automatically’ list. Shining Girls (HarperCollins Australia, 2013) is her tightest yet.
In it, she leaves South Africa behind, instead trawling through Chicago’s history since the Depression era, as a serial killer uses a most unusual house to track and kill his victims – his shining girls.
The blurb makes no secret of the fact the house enables Harper Curtis to spread his carnage across a 60-odd year span.
His evil is well drawn, leaving us in no doubt this guy needs to be stopped.
Harper has never limited his appetites to one particular kind of woman or another. Some men prefer girls with wasp waists or red hair or heavy buttocks you can dig your fingers into, but he has always taken whatever he could get, whenever he could get it, paying for it most of the time. The House demands more. It wants italic potential – to claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out. Harper knows how to do that. He will need to buy a knife. Sharp as a bayonet.
The damage done is portrayed through a survivor, Kirby, who dedicates herself to the seemingly impossible task of finding her attacker. She teams up with burnt-out journo Dan, a crime writer now on the sports round, using his knowledge and newspaper resources to make her case file.
Adding to the sense of waste caused by the senseless murder spree are glimpses into the lives and deaths of the shining girls, sometimes in their point of view, sometimes Harper’s, as well as that of an addict whose character is well realised but whose presence in the book is of minor assistance.
And in keeping with the story’s time-travelling conceit, the episodes are presented in non-linear fashion. It’s a bit of a head spin, but it works.
Time travel brings a raft of headaches, not least the idea of if at first you don’t succeed …, but Beukes has answered the conundrums with smooth skill.
Her vignettes of Chicago are wonderfully realised, her characterisation spot on, her story enthralling. When the writing’s this good, I can accept with perfect faith the chicken and egg scenarios that come with time travel. My only regret is that the book was such a joy to read, it took no time at all.