We’re reading THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes

12 Jul

Liz Sourbut asks: Who lives in a House like this?

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HarperCollins, HB £12.99

A time-travelling serial killer is hard to catch. It’s hard even to spot a consistent MO when he’s dodging around Chicago anywhen between 1929 and 1993, killing exceptional young women in random order. Kirby Mazrachi is the one who got away, although not without horrendous injuries and an appalling psychological aftermath. She’s determined to catch the man who so nearly killed her, but the police have pretty much given up on her case and she’s not getting a lot of support from anywhere. Even Dan, the ex-homicide journalist turned sports reporter for whom she is interning on the Sun-Times newspaper in 1993, would much rather she dropped her interest in the case.

Harper Curtis, out of work and drifting like so many men during the Great Depression, is running from attackers in November 1931. He murders a blind old woman for her coat and in the pocket he finds a key. The key lets him into the House (always capitalised) and in the House he finds many strange things. Perhaps strangest of all is the time-lapse view out of the windows. The House is adrift in time, and he learns that if he concentrates he can come and go to any time he pleases between 1929 and 1993. Upstairs is a room full of apparently random artefacts and girls’ names chalked on the walls in his own handwriting. The House whispers to him, and he embarks on a killing spree, drawn to young girls who shine with potential. He meets them first as children and gives each of them a small gift. Then he returns – for him, only a day or two later; for them, years – when their potential has begun to manifest, and he kills them. Brutally. In graphic detail. Often from the viewpoint of the young woman herself.

Harper takes his time, finding perverse sexual pleasure in the act of inflicting prolonged pain and finally death. This is not a book for the squeamish, nor, to my mind, for anyone with the faintest feminist streak in their soul. It is not pleasant to read of yet another sick, angry man with a knife taking out his frustrations on women who have done nothing whatsoever to provoke him and I was waiting for some reason, some purpose, some sense to come out of it. There was none, and perhaps that’s right, but it leaves a sick feeling behind. I did not find this an uplifting book.

Beukes writes confidently and well. She evokes the different eras in Chicago’s history with great clarity and conviction and, although many of the shining girls of the title have only cameo appearances, she manages to make us feel as though we know each of them within a page or two – which makes it all the more horrific when Harper arrives with his knife.

Kirby, the young woman who survived thanks to the intervention of her dog, is strong and determined. She never gives up. She has great courage, and it’s clear that whatever else he is, Harper (or the House he serves) is a good judge of potential.

This is a very well-crafted book, carefully plotted and filled with rounded, largely likeable characters, most of whom end up dead, their potential snuffed out senselessly. What was this all about? Why did any of this happen? And – hang on – aren’t these questions the author’s job?

Also on the blog: Liz Sourbut catches streins of The Monster’s Lament in London’s underworld.

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