Soaring over the erratic, time-traveling plot of Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, Harper--a brooding, evil, and broken serial killer--tres to find himself while torn between his world of 1931 and various other
eras. Kirby Mazrachi, the tale’s intrepid heroine who actually meets Harper in July 1974 as a little girl, is similarly pulled in different directions, forced to find the man who tried to murder her with little or no clue
as to his whereabouts.
In 1931 Chicago, in a ramshackle Hooverville
(“the abode of forgotten men”), shabby jazz joints and cafes give way to cheap houses stacked on top of each other, providing a dark end to the street extravaganza where--theoretically at least--Harper’s epic vision is made reality. He stumbles into The House, a place that at first seems to save him from a life of misfortune. Calling him here for a purpose, The House not only offers him a window in time but also the promise of rebirth and evolution.
A voice in Harper’s head whispers to him. More than this wretched place, he remembers growing up in a series of flophouses and shacks. With his useless left foot, a coat and a key, Harper walks the back streets, getting deeper into the warehouse district and up the stairs to a worker’s lodging house, where a series of artifacts truly bewilder him. "Connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again,” the artifacts jitter and jumpstart Harper’s strange journey through time and into the lives of a group women he doesn’t know but
who are marked for death.
Once started, this is one of those blood-soaked tales that draw the reader inexorably into a world of complex patterns and clues where even grievous losses add to an acceptable consequence of events. Beukes’s multi-layered plot unfolds in short stages: the faces of “the shining girls” and Harper’s realization like a door opening inside of him as “his fever peaks and howls;” Kirby’s growing affair with sports reporter Dan Velasquez, who refuses to acknowledge the plea from her to be more interested in crime; Kirby’s wounds and her tragic past; the decaying body of a man gripping a half-frozen turkey;
and the first brutal murder: the Thirties “glow girl,” Jeanette Clara, whom Harper spies while under observation by the doctors for radium poisoning.
The House is like “a no-man’s land” forcing Harper to think about his own time as he embarks on his bitter path towards murder, stalking his victims through the decades. Meanwhile, Kirby and Dan initiate a search
that leads them into a history of gruesome stabbing deaths. Dan learns to tread extra carefully, while Kirby thinks they’ll never catch the perpetrator. In her moment of life-or-death, Kirby learns her limitations
(so does her mother, Rachel) while the author explores the nature of crisis and its aftermath in the context of Harper, Kirby, Dan and Rachel’s environment.
The story’s ambition and scope pull one way and its frightening sense of
unease pulls the other, causing the novel to sometimes come across as
disjointed, although Beukes heroically attempts to sew all of her disparate elements together in a tightly-woven tapestry. Sometimes compelling, other times deeply disturbing, The Shining Girls is provocative and laced with violence beyond the usual expectations of a novel (the scene when Harper lures Kirby into a bird sanctuary and trusses her and her beloved dog in his “complete circle” is particularly unsettling).
As Kirby and Dan's murder investigation cranks up and Harper’s days grow numbered, an old nemesis regains the spotlight
as the narrative rushes headlong into a heart-stopping (if predictable) denouement.
Although not really to my literary taste, Beukes satisfactorily portrays Harper as a rootless, tormented soul
as well as how Kirby’s traumatic, near-death experiences are lost to time and memory.
Past and present connect through the two protagonists, a cat-and-mouse game obscuring a terrifying landscape where the boundaries of revenge and blood are inexplicably blurred.