1 June 2013

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

There are so many good things about this book that I've actually found it hard to marshal my thoughts into a sensible review. At one level I just want to say "buy it, call in sick to work, switch your phone off and READ". And I do say that. But just saying that wouldn't be very helpful.

Trying again, I think there are three really good things about this book.

First, and most obviously, the concept. Harper Curtis, a drifter and ex soldier, stumbles into a mysterious house in 1930s Chicago. He emerges from this into various different times over the succeeding decades to carry out murders, like some form of evil Doctor Who in an anti TARDIS. One of Harper's victims, Kirby, survives, and sets out to hunt him down. That alone would be a really sweet SF concept, but Beukes uses it to do so much more. It is clear that, somehow, the house is more than a passive time machine. It is somehow driving Harper to commit the murders, at least in his mind (not that he was an innocent beforehand, as the book makes clear). So at one level the existence, and the properties, of the house provide a kind of explanation for what he'd doing, for the evil he carries out. That might be thought a cop-out, but it's not - the entire idea of a time travelling house existing at all is itself just... bonkers. So one that leads a man to kill is not actually much weirder. But we accept the idea of time travel in this kind of book, don't we... just as we accept books about serial killers. Beukes seems to me to be posing some questions here about what we read, what stories we buy, what we like to here, and not always in a comfortable way - just as she starkly depicts the brutality of Harper's murder (and torture).

Secondly, the characters are all magnificent. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is portrayed so vividly. Kirby is so real, with her scars and her traumas, as is Harper, but Kirby's mother is made so real, as is Dan, a journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, who tries to help Kirby. They are the main characters. But also the succession of "shining girls" that Harper kills are brought alive, even if there are only a few pages for them, their hopes made real, their ambitions made real, their fears made real. They are not just victims. Beukes shows real humanity, even respect, in creating them. And as if that isn't enough she has a way of making even passing minor characters vividly real. Here's Victoria, pictures editor at Dan's paper: "She's wearing her usual uniform of a button-up men's shirt and jeans with heels, a little bit shlumfy, a little bit f***-you"

That leads me to my third thought - in many respects this book is a tribute, almost a hymn, to the idea, to the era, of print journalism. There is a barely hidden thrill among all the journalists talking about the place of their paper in the world. It's the people's paper, unlike the snooty, rival broadsheet. Maybe TV has diminished its reach, but what is printed still matters. Beukes has said in interviews that the book had to end in the 90s because any later, it would be too easy for Kirby to solve the mystery via the Web. That may be true, but I also wonder if it was because of the sad dwindling of those distinctive local US papers in the face of faster online news?

All in all, a tremendous book, deviously plotted, well written, bold in concept and - despite the subject matter - not exploitative. Now go and get a copy and read it.

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