The Shining Girls
by Lauren Beukes
When he finds the House-- or maybe it is when the House finds him-- Harper Curtis becomes something more than an angry, bitter cripple driven by an unhealthy obsession with death. On the outside, the House looks like any other derelict residence on Chicago’s mean streets, but when he ventures inside, Harper finds a room whose door transports him through time, from Chicago’s mob-ridden Depression years through to the 1990s. With the same uncanny sense of certainty that brought him to the House, Harper knows that the room’s gift is tied to a mission: to find each girl whose name flickers ghostlike in Harper’s script on the walls, collect the trinket peculiar to that girl, and then to kill her. But when one of Harper’s “shining girls” survives his brutal attack, Harper isn’t the only one who starts on a quest that leads through time.
Harper’s attack may have left Kirby Mazrachi scarred, but it hasn’t broken her resolve. Still blazing with passion and life, impatient and angry and rebellious, Kirby rejects the superficially comforting advice from everyone around her that she should “put it all behind her.” If the police won’t help her, Kirby decides, she’ll just find her near-killer on her own. She inveigles her way into an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times and promptly ropes the ex-crime-reporter into her cause. Even as Harper moves forward through his list of shining girls, Kirby begins to delve backwards into the Chicago of yesterday.
The Shining Girls is, in my opinion, the best form of historical fiction, melding meticulous research with a nailbiting plot and vibrant characters. As a time-travel story, it is utterly satisfying: as the story proceeds, the disparate pieces snap together, falling into place like the cogs of some intricate device, a Rube Goldberg machine that ranges over history. As it is a story about a vicious serial killer who stalks his victims through time, it’s probably not particularly surprising that the book contains significant graphic violence, and you have to go in accepting that quite a few of the characters will be murdered. Yet to me, the story truly centred around the history of Chicago and the shining girls who simultaneously exemplify and rebel against their time. Each of the girls are shining beacons of promise; each is poised to change the world and propel it into a brighter future-- as long as they can survive the killer who stalks them.
Harper acts as the reader’s anchor, the one constant in an ever-changing Chicago skyline. He makes for a peculiar and fascinating perspective; a man of Depression-era Chicago, he is briefly intrigued by the technology of the times he travels through, yet is utterly uninterested in the culture or current events. The only things that Harper cares about in the future times are his shining girls. Harper isn’t a character whose perspective I enjoy, but Beukes did do an impressive job in creating a rather terrifying sociopath. Although much of the narrative is from his perspective, Harper never stops feeling alien and unfamiliar, and his reaction to events remain unpredictable and unfathomable, especially when he is trying to be human. For example, in the opening scene, when he is trying to ingratiate himself with a child, his idea of “playing circus” is to tear the wings off a bee and dangle it from its legs on flypaper.(show spoiler)
While Harper may consume a bulk of the pagetime, there is a reason why the book is titled The Shining Girls rather than, say, House of Death and Time or The Vintage Killer. The shining girls are as magnetic and vibrant for the reader as they are for Harper. The narrative catapults the reader into the perspective of each of the shining girls at least once, and each provides the reader with a startlingly vibrant glimpse of the Chicago of their era while simultaneously questioning the values of that time. The women are a varied group, but they all have one thing in common: from the African-American woman who holds her own as a welder in an all-white shipbuilding factory in WWII, to the volunteer Jane counsellor who tries to help women regain control of their bodies, the lesbian female architect defying the straightlaced anti-Commie attitudes of the fifties, to the transexual who dreams of finding her own “Sunday Kind of Love”, all of them push the boundaries of acceptable behavior, shining with the potential to transform their worlds. Each is simultaneously within and ahead of her time; never anachronistic, each is rooted in the Chicago of her era, balanced on the crest of the wave of change that is poised above the city.
Beukes never stumbles into the infodump, yet still manages to supply the reader with fascinating and meticulously researched tidbits of history. As is always the case with the best of historical fiction, the book drove me on my own google quest, where my admiration for the book was buoyed by its historical accuracy in everything from the radium-dancing Glowgirl to the Jane Collective to the shipyards of WWII. All of the characters are satisfyingly diverse, from the Russian conman to the Puerto Rican reporter (Beukes did some research on the correct cursewords). I definitely recommend peeking into the afterward, where Beukes provides more entertaining details about her research process, including the more mundane details, from policework to profanity. On the same note, I've both eye-read and audioed this book, and I can definitely recommend the audio, which features a full cast of terrific narrators.
Overall, I think The Shining Girls is one of the best historical thrillers I've read in a while; not only is it fast-paced and enjoyable to read, but it ignited my curiosity and started me on not a few Wikipedia and Google-hunts. Beukes creates a vibrant, ever-changing town and a host of fascinating (if short-lived) characters, and the story itself is meticulously interwoven and intricate. If you're a fan of thrillers and want to get a glimpse of Chicago's murky past, this is definitely worth a read.