History repeats itself in this, the third novel from South African writer Lauren Beukes, as across the twentieth century a serial killer stalks the streets of Chicago. From the slums of the 1930s through decades of increasing industrialisation and prosperity before culminating in the disillusioned youth of the 1990’s, Harper Curtis is guided to the girls who shine, slipping between the years as easily as walking through the door of the mysterious house which demands that he end their lives and return with trophies taken from each, a plastic pony, a cigarette lighter, a baseball card…
The pattern is disrupted by Kirby Mazrachi who first encountered Harper as a child in 1974 before he sought her out in 1989, where against expectation she survives his attack. Rebuilding her life, she lands an internship assisting a newspaper reporter hoping to gain access to details of her own case and the others she suspects might be out there, waiting to be linked to reveal a pattern, not realising how far back the clues will lead her and then unable to rationalise the pieces of evidence displaced in time.
Set against the changing backdrop of the city, beneath the momentum of the narrative this is also a novel about how women and gender roles have changed through that most tumultuous century, moving from widowed mother Zora in the 1930s, working as a welder on the war effort even though her colour means she doesn’t qualify for accommodation in the shipyard, to Alice in the 1940s, a sideshow dancer who uses the visibility of her stage persona to conceal her secrets.
Even when the carnival presents the dancers as manufactured stereotypes, archetypes who flaunt themselves, in doing so they exploit the men whose fantasies they represent, for it is they who pay for the privilege of viewing them. These women are individuals, all with stories to tell, enduring hardships known to women the world over. In the 1950s, Willie must fight to establish herself in a male dominated profession and is accused of un-American leftist leanings when a deeper truth would be more devastating to her career, while twenty years later activist Margot endangers herself to assist teens in obtaining illegal abortions. They all have their chance to shine in these pages, and the majority of them go down fighting, refusing to give in to their fate.
Not all the portraits of femininity are flattering; while Alice in particular refuses to be Harper’s victim, Etta, the nurse who tends Harper in the 1930s cares more for herself than her patients, and Rachel, Kirby’s failed Bohemian artist mother, is barely able to take care of herself; “It’s impossible to push her away,” Kirby observes as she recuperates from the attack. “Her default state of being is absent.”
With experience in writing for magazines, television and comics and an Arthur C Clarke award for her previous novel Zoo City, Beukes is aware of the lack of genre role models for girls and how mixed the messages they offer are, Kirby at one point rediscovering her abandoned Princess Leia and Evil Lyn action figures, but another victim, the social worker Jin-Sook, looked further, a copy of Octavia Butlers’ Parable of the Sower found among her belongings.
By sheer coincidence, history also repeats itself in that The Shining Girls was published within days of Joe Hill’sN0S-4R2, which also features a serial killer who seeks his victims by travelling through a dimensional rift, though each tale develops in very different directions, though the similarities in theme are sharpened by prose style of Beukes which resembles both Hill and his famous father Stephen King. With her intense focus on place and sensation, the jumble of childhood memories of hope tinged with sadness and disappointment, like King, Beukes grounds the story in mundane detail, the real world seen slightly askew, a tarnished mirror reflecting a familiar room from an angle previously unseen.
Part police procedural, part jigsaw puzzle, weaving the narratives together even as they are fractured by the ripples which pass back and forth through cause and effect, the timelines converge on the derelict house where all the events tie together in a bloody tangle. The conclusion is too easily facilitated by an act of rash impatience by Harper which obviates the careful research Kirby has put in to track him, but it is still satisfying with a postscript providing the unexpected last tumbler falling reassuringly in place as the key turns.
The Shining Girls is available now from Harper Collins