Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I really didn't like The Shining Girls at first. It's a thriller about a psychopath in Chicago who hunts down a series of women who, he tells us, "shine". The killings are described in graphic detail, with much of the story told from the killer's perspective - that is, Harper's brutal view of women and what he does to them. It's not that I'm particularly squeamish, but I don't like nasty things happening for the sake of it.

But I persevered through the first 20 pages, chiefly on the strength of how much I'd loved Beukes's Zoo City, and was soon swept up in an extraordinary piece of work. For one thing, Harper travels in time between the 1930s and 1990s, which makes the chances of his being caught all the more remote. More than that, it allows vivid glimpses of history: how these people lived as much as how they died.

Beukes' acknowledgements at the end spell out how much research into all kinds of areas has been necessary to make this world so rich and real - as she says herself,
"everything from illegal abortion groups to real-life radium dancing girls, the evolution of forensics, '30s restaurant reviews and the history of '80s toys."
Lauren Beukes, "Acknowledgements", The Shining Girls, p. 387.
What really makes the book special, though, is that the person on Harper's trail is also one of his victims - a girl who he thinks he killed. Kirby is funny, furious and liable to plunge headlong into trouble. She also feels very real, which makes it easier to accept the convenient, unexplained time travel stuff.

Kirby's story - her efforts to overcome to the trauma of what happened to her, to own it, to make something of the life she nearly didn't have - makes the horror more that titillation. We understand its long-lasting impact, and fear her facing it again. One sequence midway through the book skips ahead, showing Kirby in danger before we know how she's got there, and really builds the tension.

The last 50 pages or so are spectacularly exciting - I was rather glad the Dr had a night out in the pub last night so I could indulge in racing to the end.

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