A Launch and A Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

On Tuesday last week, I went on a little adventure to Melrose Arch for the launch of The Shining Girls.
The place is overwhelming, to say the least: I thought Melrose Arch was a mall, but really it's a town- complete with apartment complexes and probably a gym or two hidden behind all the hotels and shops. I did a little bit of running in heels and asked for directions to Exclusive Books, and I was ready to meet Lauren Beukes.
*mind the camera phone quality. Me with Lauren Beukes, who looked
every bit the Shining Girl as she graciously autographed fans' books. 

The launch was organised by The Citizen and Bruce Dennill, editor of CitiVibe did a brief interview with Beukes and facilitated the Q and A session afterwards. It was interesting to see the range of people who were there as fans of Beukes' work: it seems that it isn't just varsity students who enjoy the kind of new-age science fiction which she produces. Just as you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, you shouldn't try to guess the reader based on the genre.

The book of the evening, The Shining Girls, is a time-travel thriller about a serial killer who targets young, bright, ambitious women from different eras. Harper Curtis gets away with these murders, and everything is going according to plan. Until one of the girls he attacked, Kirby Mazrachi, turns out to have survived, and is on a mission to find out where he is and bring him to justice.

The plot spans roughly 60 years, from the 1930s to the the early 1990s, and is set in Chicago. Each of the women that Harper targets are special in some way: they are hard workers trying to make it in male-dominated environments, as with the architect; they are women helping other women to take control of their lives, as with the abortion rights activist; they are women interested in improving quality of life for others, as with the optimistic young social worker. They are women with strong personalities and the will to fight to make it; they stand out and shine, and for this, they deserve to die. So says the House through which Harper travels through eras, and which dictates which women to snuff out. A free association reading of the house could define it as some sort of metaphor for a patriarchal society which seeks to hold women back.

As Harper is jumping back and forth and around time, completing his mission, Kirby is in 1993, doing her own investigation on the man who "killed" her: she survived when no one expected her to, and now no one is willing to reopen the case or entertain her questions. She goes back to interview families of victims of similar attacks, and finds the old case notes of a retired police officer who worked on her case. She pieces things together, and doesn't stop even when what she finds is scary, and even when the police and her reluctant ally, Dan Velasquez don't take her seriously.

Kirby finds the House, and gets her chance to confront Harper. In a scene which had me clutching the pages and running my wide eyes over the words quickly as I got caught up in the action, the saga ends with Kirby being vindicated, and leaves the reader with a sense that, though she has confronted her killer, there is still a lot more to Kirby's search for justice.

When asked why the book is set in Chicago and not in South Africa, Lauren Beukes says that to set the novel in South Africa's early to mid-20th century, would be to have the plot weighed down by details of the apartheid era and other questions about colonialism and politics which make up the history of this country. Instead, she wanted to highlight the ways in which the advent of sophisticated technology and architecture, and the anti-communist and women's rights movements shaped modern society.
In addition to exploring the impact of the innovations coming out of the 20th century, Beukes' book also places a strong emphasis on violence against women, and the ways in which women are reduced to their injuries in violent societies- they are not seen as human beings anymore.
Further examination of the topic of womanhood is facilitated by the character of Alice, who works hard to earn the right to be called a woman in a time when "transgender",or "transsexual" were probably not yet known concepts, let alone an acceptable way of life.

Beukes' book asks some hard questions about violence, politics, and patriarchy, and provides the reader with a lot of springboards for further thought about the state of society. The way that reality is alienated- with the use of time travel and other plot devices which require a temporary suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader- creates the space for exploration of everyday life.
This is an entertaining, well-written book which handles the time travelling aspect expertly and leaves the reader's mind whirring in awe and delight- just as a good book should.

As I found with Zoo City, this book requires a second reading in order to glean more of its essence and really enjoy it. That's something else that a book should have: the ability to draw readers in, and have them going back to read it and finding more things to appreciate.

The Shining Girls is available at Exclusive Books in paperback for R146.