Book Review: The Shining Girls: A Novel, Lauren Beukes (2014)

October 13th, 2014 12:10 pm by Kelly Garbato

Deserves every bit of the buzz – and then some!

five out of five stars

My introduction to Lauren Beukes came in the form of Broken Monsters, an ARC of which I had the pleasure of reviewing last month. Though I fell in love with Beukes’ writing style – the playful use of pop culture references, the skillful interweaving of multiple narratives and POVs, the casual interrogation of racism and sexism – the particular blend of fantasy/SF and crime fiction found in Broken Monsters didn’t quite do it for me. Thinking that it might work better in The Shining Girls, I bumped it up to the top of my TBR pile. I know it’s a little tired to say that this book shines, but. Yeah, it kind of does.

Harper is a psychopath living in a Chicago Hooverville circa 1931 when he robs a blind woman of her coat – in the pocket of which he finds a key, which leads him to the House. His House. By all appearances a dilapidated shack, once Harper steps through the front door, it magically transforms itself a mansion – shiny, new, and opulent – just for him. And when he passes through the front door again, he can step out onto any time he can imagine…just so long as the day falls somewhere between 1931 and 1993.

On the wall of the upstairs bedroom thrums a constellation, the stars of which are names of women (scrawled and scratched in Harper’s own handwriting, natch) and their associated objects. Harper instinctively knows what he must do: find the women – these glowing stars – whenever they exist, and snuff out their lights. Redistribute these anachronistic objects. Close the loop.

A prolific time-traveling serial killer, Harper meets his match in Kirby, the only one of his victims to escape alive (thanks in no small part to her heroic dog Tokyo Speedracer Mazrachi; I’ve earmarked the name for my next rescue pup!). When the police’s investigation stalls out, she secures a spot as an intern at The Chicago Sun-Times so that she can work alongside veteran crime reporter Dan Velasquez, who covered her case several years earlier – even though he’s since moved on to the sports beat. As Harper steps in and out of historic Chicago, his and Kirby’s paths converge, with all roads leading to the House.

The Shining Girls reminded me of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 in the best way possible. Like The Shining Girls, NOS4A2 features a psychopath serial killer who, aided by a magical object (in this case, a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith) travels the ‘verse (innerscapes) in search of young victims (whose psychic energy he drains to power his ride). Aided by her Raleigh Tuff Burner, Victoria McQueen is the only one of Manx’s victims to escape – and, as a young woman, she will prove his undoing. The parallels are many, yet each story is its own, beautiful beast.

I especially love how the House’s doors offer a glimpse into seminal moments in American history: the Chicago World Fair, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, WWII, Jim Crow segregation, McCarthyism. Harper’s victims come from all walks of life and defy easy categorization: Zora Ellis Jordan is a young mother and war widow working at the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, “weld[ing] the gun turrets that will tear those Nazi shits into mincemeat.” One of the company’s only African American employees (in truth, Chicago Bridge & Iron Company had no black welders in 1943), she and her four children are barred from staying in on-site employee housing; instead, she’s forced to rent a house in nearby Seneca, a one-hour+ trip by foot. Willie is an architect – a female architect being a rarity in 1954 – who is terrified of being labeled a “Communist” due to her sexual preferences and liberal leanings. Alice is a trans woman recently fired from the carnival when she meets Harper for the first time – and mistakes him for the man of her dreams.

There’s a wonderful breadth of diversity here that’s both appropriate and refreshing. As she did in Broken Monsters, Beukes examines the history and dynamics of racism and sexism (not to mention homophobia and transphobia) without being heavy-handed. The interrogation is simply part of the story, and blends seamlessly with the fictional elements and larger plot.

After finishing The Shining Girls, I went out and snatched up the rest of Beuke’s oeuvre. She’s quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Whether you’re drawn to the science fiction/time travel, crime fiction, historical fiction, or social justice elements of the story (or e) all of the above), I cannot recommend The Shining Girls highly enough!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Among time traveling serial killer Harper’s victims are Zora Ellis Jordan, one of the only black welders at Chicago Bridge & Iron Company circa 1943; Willie, a closeted architect in 1954; and Alice, a trans woman working at a carnival. Veteran crime reporter (read: Kirby’s sidekick) Dan Velasquez is Latino. See my review for more.

Animal-friendly elements: RIP, Tokyo Speedracer Mazrachi.


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