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Book of the week : The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes won critical acclaim for her first two novels, Zoo City and Moxieland, both of which were urban fantasies set in her native South Africa. Now she’s set her imagination loose on a different continent, to explore the inner life of a serial killer in Chicago who figures out how to travel through time

In The Shining Girls, Beukes takes a familiar element of speculative fiction-writing, time travel, and combines it with a stock in trade of crime fiction – the psychopathic serial killer, though in this case not so serial. The result is an intriguing thriller that leaves you reeling under its many paradoxes

Harper Curtis is an emotionally damaged former soldier, who’s returned from World War I shattered and bloodthirsty. When at last his inner turmoil explodes into murder, he stumbles across a bizarre house while fleeing from the cops. From the outside, it’s battered and boarded up, but inside it’s luxurious and packed with hidden stashes of money. Though Harper enters the house during the winter of 1931, he can exit it at any time in the future — all the way up through 1993

He calls it simply the House, and it talks to him, leading him to a room full of shimmering trinkets labeled with women’s names. It’s Harper’s once and future serial killer trophy room, and it launches him on a murderous career unlike any you’ve ever seen in fiction before. The House has its own imperatives. These young women ‘shine’, they are ‘bursting with potential’, and that is enough to make them Curtis’s victims. He stalks his victims through time, finding them as little girls, taunting them, and then reappearing in their lives as adults to do his bloody deeds

Harper isn’t drawn to a particular physical type, the way most serial killers are. Instead, he pursues his ‘shining girls’, young women with tremendous potential and the guts to change the world for the better. Beukes leaps between Harper’s murderous perspective and those of his victims, giving us incredible, often heartbreaking glimpses of women who are about to make a difference with their art, their activism, their scientific discoveries - or even just their will to succeed in a man’s world. And then, as if Harper is some kind of avenging angel of the patriarchy, he cuts them all down

But Harper finds his cloak of anonymity torn away when, against the odds, Kirby Mizrachi, from the late 1980s, survives his vicious, debilitating attack – and prey becomes hunter. Enlisting the help of grizzled former crime reporter, Dan Velasquez, the tenacious Kirby attempts to piece together the scattered fragments which criss-cross a complex, often implausible, trajectory of time and place

The narrative spirals from 1931 to 1993 and back, pausing in each decade with non-chronological visits to potential or actual victims and offering us vignettes of Chicago’s history - including the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, with its mechanical marvels. Meanwhile, Kirby and Curtis keep obsessively hunting each other as time folds back on itself again and again

You have to trust that the time lapses work - the segues are sometimes complicated - but that trust is rewarded by the astonishing and brilliantly imagined ending.

Because of its structure, with its complex manipulation of narrative and story time, The Shining Girls is not entirely an easy read, nor is it for the faint-hearted, but it is an original, well-written and exciting novel

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