Harper Collins 2013, 391 p
Harper Curtis walks up to young girl Kirby Mazrachi in July 1974 in order to give her a toy pony made of plastic. She is one of the girls he sees shine and feels compelled to murder. The pony is a calling card of sorts. The next chapter we are with Harper in Chicago’s Hooverville in November 1931 where by a set of somewhat improbable circumstances Harper injures his leg, kills a blind woman and gains the key to a mysterious house. Subsequent chapters flit between different times as we follow both Kirby in her placement as an assistant to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Dan Velasquez and Harper’s murders of various Shining Girls (and other incidental victims) in the intervening years, leaving an item taken from another on or near each girl’s body. Kirby herself almost died as one of Harper’s victims and is obsessed with tracking him down.
Nothwithstanding the shifts in time, the novel is told in the present tense. Most often the viewpoint is that of Harper or Kirby but occasionally other characters are given the task of carrying the story. As far as Harper is concerned it’s all the present anyway.
Beukes’s characterisation is excellent, the interplay between Kirby and Dan and other Sun-Times workers well handled, as is her relationship with her mother. Harper is of course a far from sympathetic character but as a First World War veteran and depression era product is convincing. He does adapt to travelling to the future a trifle easily, however. There is one point at which we are taken briefly to the Century of Progress Exposition (held in Chicago in 1933-4) – I have the second poster shown in the link on one of my walls.) I couldn’t make up my mind if this was merely to show off Beukes’s research as apart from underlining Harper’s callousness it did not contribute much to the story.
The time travel seems to be a function of the mysterious house and/or those caught up in Harper’s murderous activities. It is this aspect of the novel which I found a little unsatisfactory. Like the ability in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife there is no rationale for Harper being able to travel in time. This tumbles the story into fantasy. As a crime/thriller novel it works perfectly though.
The Shining Girls seems to have been a breakthrough novel for Beukes, introducing her to a wider audience than for her two previous novels, both with fantastical elements. Her prose flows beautifully and she certainly knows how to gain and hold the reader. The Shining Girls is without doubt well written and tightly plotted and may well garner Beukes awards, the time loops hang together but I must admit I was more intrigued by her previous novel, Zoo City.