Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes - The Shining Girls

The Shining Girls is a time travel plot with a twist. While many time travel stories concern the paradoxes of time travel itself, or perhaps the consequences of changing actions in the past/future/present. As a result, these narratives are often built around this central conceit, the foregrounding and questioning of the nature of time travel becoming the key plot point. Beukes, following in the footsteps of Audrey Niffenegger's immensely successful The Time Traveler's Wife, chooses instead to let time travel simply be, integral to the plot, but not forced upon the reader or having its rules and reasons rammed down her throat.

Instead, The Shining Girls method of time travel focuses on The House (always capitalized in the text). Tightly constructed third person chapters follow Harper Curtis, a serial killer from the 1930s, as he discover The House following a casually brutal opening scene. The House is full of artifacts in the bedroom, 'trophies' hung on the wall, each accompanied by a scrawly woman's name in chalk. These artifacts, and the names themselves 'shine' - they seem to have an effect somewhat like an addictive drug on Harper, forcing him to walk out of the house into different times and kill the woman involved.

We are introduced early on to the counterpoint to Harper, Kirby Mazrachi. A precocious newspaper intern, she was one of Harper's victims, one who didn't die. Instead, in a harrowing and utterly superlative scene, she is saved from death by another. As a result of this experience having defined her (as it would with any victim of such an horrific act), Kirby searches for answers - she joins The Chicago Sun-Times as a sports intern under the guidance of Dan, former homicide reporter, troubled, recently divorced, lonely. The relationship with Dan moves swiftly from respect to friendship, with brief flings (one-sided) into longing. It is this relationship, as well as that of Kirby and her mother, that are some of the best pieces of Beukes' fiction. In Zoo City, it was the relationship of Zinzi and Sloth that stuck with me - in this, I believe that it is the relationship of Dan and Kirby.

As with Zoo City, Beuke's prose is fluid, a lovely present-tense, third-person, literary/genre boundary-treading with enough punch and wisecracking to make you smile, to make you empathize, to make you believe. Where Beukes shines is clearly this mix of plot and character, giving eacha  particular voice. Even the caricatures are voiced individually, with their own turns of phrase, their own stylistic quirks. It is very difficult in a multi-viewpoint novel to get the balance of literary quality and individual voice perfected, but Beukes does a brilliant job - on a par with the multi-voice quality of the best of Joe Abercrombie's works, which is high praise indeed.

The plotting is meticulous, brilliantly circular, astonishingly well rounded. We follow Harper's story and Kirby's story in interweaving patterns of close third person prose, interspersed with viewpoints of other women that Harper has murdered. All share a common theme - they are strong, unique, yet alone in their dreams. They are on the margin of society and don't give a shit: are determined to continue in their ways, change their world. They, are in short, role models for the most part. Harper's intervention frequently buggers things up, makes them people who's lives are defined by Harper's intervention, but for the most part the ideas behind the characters are very good. However, despite all this, it at times rings false. The single viewpoints we encounter try and force an etire character, back story and all, into the reader in a  few short paragraphs. By virtue of the serial killer's 'rules' we only see each character twice: not enough to develop the feeling that Beukes clearly has for these women. Each victim is thus not given enough time of day - they become caricatures of themselves: the radium dancer; the transsexual showgirl; the brilliant female architect, struggling to make it; the Korean social service woman; the black steel worker in an all-white ship making factory. Coupled with the wikipedia-style factoids thrown in ('... suburban developments are going to transform the lives of working-class families' says 1950's architect [p.139]) these elements seem too pristine, too, dare I say, Dan Brown, in parts - obviously with prose that doesn't read like a punch in the face.

Indeed, the acknowledgements section is the longest I've ever seen in a book: 5 whole pages, where 2  normally suffice. As a result of the vast amount of research, pulled off spectacularly for the most part - if it weren't for my knowing Lauren is from Cape Town I'd never have she wasn't a Chicago-ite - there is a pressure to get as much of this as possible in. This is a touch too overt, too easily seen.

The plot ramps up nicely in temporal and tension shifting fashion toward the end of the book, with the final set piece an excellent rounding up of one of the most obvious temporal anomalies, as well as giving an intellectual pleasing circularity to the whole endeavour that is book and plot and Harper's life. Further, the final set piece also shows what a good time-travel story can allow an intelligent and articulate author the space to do: Beukes plays with different time periods within one set piece, using the time period themselves as pieces in a jigsaw. This is what a book like this is made for: an astonishing plot.

The book is a pleasure to read on a sentence level, indeed it is a pleasure to read on a plot level. However there are elements that go a touch too far into caricature, without being deliberate, and the tip of the research iceberg is visible when it should be underwater. Only the tip, mind you, but its enough to occasionally drag the reader out of the novel. All that said, it's a very good book, with one particularly spectacular scene, astonishingly well plotted, with believable and real relationships amongst the main characters, slightly let down by tangible elements among its minor scenes.

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