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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lauren Beukes: "The Shining Girls"

Author:  Lauren Beukes
Title:  The Shining Girls   
Plot Type:   Fantasy Horror Thriller 
Ratings:  Violence--5+; Sensuality--1; Humor--2-3  
Publisher:  Mulholland Books: Little, Brown and Company Editions:  hardback, audio download, e-book6/2013; audiobook on CD8/2013; paperback1/2014)

     The story is set in Chicago between the years of 1931 and 1993. The author has clearly done her research, because the scenes feel eerily real for each piece of the time period. From a Depression-era Hooverville on the lake shore to a World War II shipyard to the ink-stained newsroom at the Chicago Tribune, the atmosphere and the nitty-gritty details always ring true.   

     The fantasy aspect of the novel lies in "the House," which is a magic-imbued building situated in Englewood, on Chicago's south side. Although the exterior of the House always appears boarded-over, decrepit, and abandoned, appearances are deceiving. Inside, the rooms are beautifully and expensively furnished, with a crackling fire blazing in the magnificent parlor fireplace, top-grade whiskey in the crystal decanters, and a strange room upstairs that contains a collection of kitschy bits and pieces (e.g., a toy horse, a political badge, wings from a butterfly costume), each labeled with a woman's name. 

     This House is actually a wormholea portal that allows passage across space and time. Stephen King recently used a wormholehe calls it a portalas a key plot element in his novel, 11/22/63, in which a well-meaning time traveler tries to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In Beukes' novel, though, the time traveler is not a nice guy, he's a psychopathic serial killer.

              SUMMARY AND REVIEW             

     The time traveling murderer is Harper Curtis, whom we first meet in 1974 when he introduces himself to Kirby Mazrachi, who will become one of his victims 14 years laterthe only one to survive his attacks. Kirby is the feisty heroine of the story. She recovers from her horrific injuries, and goes to journalism school where she uses her access to the files and archives of the Chicago Tribune to carry on her search for the man who almost took her life.

     We soon learn that Harper gained access to the House back in 1931 when he was on the run after killing two people in a Chicago Hooverville. At that point in time, he grabs a jacket off the body of a woman he murders and finds a key in its pocket that radiates a hum of energy that leads him directly to the House. When Harper looks out the upstairs windows of the House, he sees a fast-forwarding rush of images: "Whole seasons whirring past....The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, recolors itself, strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled with leaves blowing down the street....The empty lot becomes overgrown, fills over with cement, grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts, rubbish congeals, the rubbish is removed, it comes back...A couch rots through seasons and then catches fire." (pp. 36-37) He discovers that he only needs to think of a date and place and then open the front door to walk into it. Interestingly, Harper can move only between the years 1929 and 1993.

     In that same upstairs room, Harper finds a collection of morbid souvenirs, each labeled with the name of a "shining girl," who, in the author's words in an online interview, are "bright sparkling women who stand out in their times, from an activist to an artist, from a pinko architect to a burlesque dancer who quite literally glows because she dances in radium paint." Beukes goes on to say that "I wanted my women to breathe on the page, to have ambition and hopes and fears, to be brave and fierce in kicking back against the conventions of their times. And tragically, that's exactly what makes them Harper's type." And that's also exactly what makes this novel different from the usual horror stories about male serial killers of young women. These women are not portrayed as victimsat least not until the very moment they take their last breaths. They are all fighters, strong individuals who deal with their lives the best way they know how. Several of them manage to fight back enough to seriously injure Harperwhich maddens him each time it happens because he believes that the women's deaths at his hands are inevitable and in his madness he can't understand why they fight against him.

     The Houseplaying on Harper's psychotic mental statesets him on a time-tripping back-and-forth journey as he visits each girl during her childhood years, gifting her with one of the House's souvenirs and promising her that he will be back to visit her when she is grown up. Tragically and horrifically, he follows through on each of those promises, killing all but one and leaving his own anachronistic souvenir on their bodies. Those strange souvenirs (e.g., a 1948 Jackie Robinson baseball card left on a body in 1943) eventually serve as clues for Kirby as she comes to grips with the fact that her attacker is no ordinary man. We learn the doomed women' names at the beginning of the story, but there is no way to save them from their fates.   

     As Harper visits the future, he is at first distracted and fascinated by tiny things and tries to figure them out: "It's all strange, but not unimaginable. Everything extrapolates. If you can catch a concert hall in a gramophone, you can contain a bioscope in a screen playing in a store window [a TV]....But some things are wholly unexpected. He stands entranced by the whirling and flaying brush strips of a car wash." (p. 60) Even crossing a city street is a new experience: "It takes only a minute to figure out how the lights work at the crosswalk. The green man and the red. Signals designed for children. And aren't all these people exactly that with their toys and noise and haste?" (p. 61)

     One point you do need to understand about Beukes' writing in this novel is that she does not gloss over the women's deaths. In her interview, Beukes explains why she describes each death in clinical detail: "Real violence is shocking. It should be, and writing their stories allowed me to give the victims a voice. I wanted you to know the tragedy of their lives cut short. Because that's the ugly truth of every real death that makes the newsor doesn't: They were actual people once." 

     I've spent a lot of words on Harper, because he, of course, is the key to the whole plot, but I do want to discuss the heroine, Kirby, as well, although to me, she is not as interesting a character. Like Harper, Kirby spends her life on an obsession. In her case, that obsession is tracking down her attacker. She's a smart and tenacious character, but for me she doesn't have quite enough depth. We spend most of our time with Kirby in 1993 when she has an internship under sports writer Dan Velasquez at the Chicago Tribune. Kirby chooses Dan because he is a former crime reporter who worked on the story of her attack. One of the strongest parts of Kirby's story is the interplay between Kirby, Dan, and their Tribune colleagues. Beukes excels at writing realistic, punchy dialogue. 

     At one point, Kirby says, "There are only so many plots in the world.It's how they unfold that makes them interesting." And that's the strength of this bookwhat keeps it from falling into a stereotypical horror story. The chapters skip back and forth in time and alternate points of view among the villain, his various victims, and some of the secondary characters (for example, a drug-addled teen who breaks into the House and steals some valuables). At first, this technique can be dizzying, but you soon fall into the rhythm. Both Harper and Kirby are caught up in their obsessions, both trying to fulfill their destinies at the same time they're trying to escape their own fates.

     The ending goes a bit off the tracks as Beukes is faced with resolving her complicated plot in one big showdown scene, but in the final analysis, most of the story works just fine. It's a thrilling, nail-biting ride through 60 years of troubled times. In her interview, Beukes explains that over and above the thriller level of her storytelling, "The Shining Girls is about how the world has changed, but we haven't. It's about what violence says about us and what it does to us and how, as Kirby says, we shouldn't stand for that shit....But at its heart, it's a story of twin obsessions:....the girl who wouldn't die, hunting a killer who shouldn't exist."

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