All of Harper Curtis’s girls shine. They have a special something; a little more curiosity, a deeper sense of wonder. They grow up to be women who will change things, maybe by being the first black woman to design airplanes, or a tough-minded architect with great ideas for high-density dwellings, maybe by being artists, writers or performers. They will change the world — or they would have, except that Harper kills them. Harper is a serial killer with a virtually perfect escape hatch that means he will never be caught. He has a house that is a time portal, allowing him to murder someone in 1982, for example, and return to his original timeline of the 1930s.
The Shining Girls is a perfect horror story. It’s also, technically at least, a thriller and the time-travel element qualifies it as science fiction. Lauren Beukes weaves the disparate elements together into an intricate plot with compelling characters.
Because he has the house, which he first encounters in 1931, Harper is poised to go on killing up and down his timeline, torturing and mutilating the young women who catch his eye. He visits them as children, and either gives them something or takes something, a trinket, a toy, a hair clip. Harper also leaves a trophy from a previous victim at each new murder scene. From his perspective, he can kill a woman one day and, the next day, visit her in her childhood. His craving for power and his hatred of these women who have potential and vision is chillingly, expertly depicted on the page. Harper is an equal-opportunity murderer, though; he will kill anyone who threatens his sick pleasure or gets in his way, whether it’s a blind woman in a Hooverville, or a doctor in a charity hospital who is too cavalier about Harper’s injury.
One of Harper’s victims, Kirby, survives the attack and is determined to bring her killer to justice. Kirby teams up with a burned-out journalist and together they begin to zero in on Harper, even though the clues they find seem unbelievable.
Read Terry’s review for her observations about Beukes’s mastery of a detailed and tricky plot. The time-travel is recursive; Harper finds the trophies from his kills in a room before he remembers having killed anybody; a tennis ball is in his pocket and hanging from a nail in the wall at the same time. Once, he returns to the house on the wrong day, and finds (again) the corpse of the previous tenant on the floor. As the book progresses we find out just how Harper found the house (or it found him) and it appears less and less accidental. Any misstep in the cycles back to the house would have weakened this powerful story, and I didn’t find a single one.
What made the story horrific and compelling for me, though, were the girls themselves. There’s Kirby, the survivor, a fighter who cannot forget what was done to her and will not let it rest, even when the evidence becomes illogical and confusing. Zora is the only black woman working at Chicago Bridge and Iron Company in 1943, a war widow struggling to raise her children in the face of unrepentant inequality. Willie Rose is an architect in the 1950s. These are women, lively, powerful, flawed individuals and, having spent time with them, we feel it more keenly when they are ripped away from us. Beukes is intentional about that effect, and she carries it off perfectly.
This is the first book by Beukes that I’ve read and it makes me want to order Zoo City right now, and Broken Monsters (it’s published by Hachette so I guess I won’t be ordering from Amazon). Lauren Beukes has a powerful talent, and the Shining Girls is a powerful book.