As much as I was completely blown away by Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, and have become an instant fan of the South African writer, it’s also a very hard book to describe to people without the story just sounding ridiculous. Saying to people, “it’s a story where this serial killer from the 30’s finds a time travelling, evil house that tells him to kill random girls in the future,” doesn’t seem to really get across the unrelenting power of this unique and heart stopping thriller.
Even so, that is essentially the story. Harper Curtis is a drifter in Depression Era Chicago, who through some less honest dealings, comes into the possession of a key for a house that turns out to act as some kind of portal to different time periods in the city. Here he finds strange objects accompanied by random girls’ names adorning the walls, as well as an unnerving possessive force that tells him he must kill each one. Not being someone that could be best described as having a right pointing moral compass, Curtis obediently walks into the future and finds these “shining girls”, whatever decade they happen to reside in. He falls into trouble however when one of his girls, Kirby Mazracki, survives his attack, and then proceeds to hunt down her killer.
There are two particular aspects of this story that are what make it so involving and distinct from the other average serial killer books, and they’re both to do with changes in perspective with certain characters in the novel. Firstly, the character of Harper Curtis is a serial killer that is finally portrayed exactly as he should be; an absolutely revolting human being. Every moment that is spent inside his head – and it’s close to half the book – leaves you feeling dirty and nauseated. It makes a nice change from what Beukes herself calls the “sophisticated, Chianti-sipping apex predator” that have made an increased appearance in films and books, the characters of Hannibal Lecter and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman being the most obvious examples. Curtis is just as dangerous and as vicious as these men, but he also is made truly repulsive by Beukes, which is much more true to serial killers who are mostly “vile, vicious, pathetic men who have major sexual hang ups”, as Beukes says herself. In the fantastical setting of a time travelling house, Harper Curtis couldn’t be a more true to life killer.
The insight and story we get into each and every girl Curtis kills is the other way in which The Shining Girls is a serial killer story distinct from the rest. Their personality, desires and fears aren’t tidbits picked up by detectives when looking in their wallet or diary after the murder has taken place, instead Beukes offers a chapter from each girl’s perspective in the hours before their death, where we read their excitement, their worries, their love for significant others that comes across so naturally and honest that they become increasingly heartbreaking to read with the knowledge of what will happen at the end of the chapter.
The book’s balance of perspective between Kirby and Curtis perfectly mirrors their obsessions against each other. The chapters that are set in the wide span of decades seem vibrant whatever year they are in; one that particularly stands out is the woman that Curtis kills in the Forties, who is working in a factory to make ships for the Second World War.
The Shining Girls is worth reading not just for its relentless narrative, but also for the way Beukes masterfully entwines the brutal reality of the serial killer, and the supernatural nature of time travelling house.