I like to devour books like I do chocolate. I want to be torn between savouring every morsel, and consuming the whole in 0.5 seconds flat. I want to feel guilty and glad at the same time.
I have to admit that I’ve never been a great reader of South African fiction because my past experience (with the JM Coetzees and Andre Brinks of the world) is that it’s hard work to read*. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be read, but if you’re looking for escape or pleasure it’s not a good fit. Lauren Beukes, however, is.
The Shining Girls is very simply explained as a book about a time-travelling serial killer. It’s the perfect get-away: Time. Harper Curtis moves between 1929 and 1993, stalking around the peripheries of the lives of the shining girls. He watches them, drinking them in, creating little points of shared connection, and he waits. Then he collects their lives, one by one. Like a cruel little boy obsessed with baseball cards. Kirby Mazrachi, Beukes’ snarky heroine, survives one of his assaults and begins a search to find her would-be murderer.
The novel is set in Chicago and (aside from the fact that the story itself is brilliantly told, and gripping, and fun) that is one of the things I enjoyed most. I hate the fact that South African authors are expected to write about South Africa. That it becomes a ‘thing’ if they don’t. I love the fact that Lauren wrote a book that could easily have been set in South Africa, but wasn’t. I love the element of universality that it lends the story.
The violence in the novel is something to be remarked upon. An article in the Guardian notes that “the killing is so brutal and pitiless that it threatens to overwhelm the rest of the novel. In a way it’s commendable that Beukes hasn’t softened the violence… but the reader may end up slightly confused by the meaning of it all.”
There’s the rub, I think. Because Kirby’s confusion at the meaning behind her murder becomes yours. Meaning shifts, like the changing landscape outside the windows of Harper’s House (though I wonder if Harper owns the House, or the House owns Harper). Being confused at the meaning of violence is meaning in itself. While senseless violence may seem meaningless, it is present nevertheless. It permeates time, and circumstance, and situation — and that is meaningful.
The other two primary criticisms are that Harper and the House go unexplained. We do not hear the internal dialog that would explain to us why Harper does what he does, or what motivates his obsession. We do not know what the story behind the House is, or indeed why it’s a house (rather than any other time traveling device). I asked the latter question of Lauren at her London book launch, and her answer was that it was a spoiler that would be revealed at the end of the book — an unsatisfying answer given that I’d already finished reading it. That said, leaving the House a mystery and keeping the reader wondering why Harper did it does not detract from Kirby’s story.
I’m going to do my best to not gush too much here, but suffice it to say that Lauren is a very good writer and storyteller, and one of her two researchers is my soulmate. So you should read it, because it is very good (and impeccably researched, obviously).
* That said, it’s just that I was put off a long while ago, and haven’t been drawn back in since. I am venturing into these waters with some SL Grey and Margie Orford — any other suggestions are welcome!