Lauren Beukes has sprung herself from the South African science fiction ghetto into more lucrative high-concept thriller territory, following her sardonic cyberpunk debut Moxyland and the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Zoo City. The Shining Girls is a serial killer story set not in Cape Town but Chicago, and it’s based firmly in the 20th century. True, Harper Curtis – a limping drifter who guts his victims, usually moments after a burst of folksy charm – can track his targets (his ‘shining girls’) at various points in time via a portal in a creepy, abandoned house. But, like Stephen King’s 11/22/63, the constrained time travel is a fantastical conceit that you accept within a few pages.
Beukes’s restless narrative certainly jumps across the decades: Harper will be shuffling around Depression-era Chicago then committing a grisly murder in 1943 a few pages later, while in 1993 his pattern of killings is confounding the novel’s protagonist, journalism intern Kirby Mazrachi, the shining girl who got away four years earlier. The writing is economical and affecting and the use of research is almost as formidable as Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels: Beukes weaves in toxic period detail – racial inequality during World War II, underground abortion clinics in the Sixties – while her authorial voice has an all-American register even if it was honed 8,500 miles away in Cape Town.
The violence is shocking and graphic and Harper is not a murderer we ever really understand. The real strength of the novel is the voice Beukes gives to Harper’s victims, whose lives are documented with humanity and a keen historical perspective. If Studs Terkel had written Silence of the Lambs it might have turned out something like The Shining Girls.