No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, February 11, 2016

2016/14: The Shining Girls -- Lauren Beukes

The objects are always here, even when he takes them away. The names of the girls have been traced over again and again until the letters have started to fray. He remembers doing it. He has no recollection of doing it. One of these things must be true. It tightens something in his chest, like a gear in a watch that’s been wound up too far. [loc.3011]

The novel opens in 1974, when a stranger named Curtis pulls the wings off a bumblebee and ruining six-year-old Kirby Mazrachi's circus. As if to make up for this, he gives her a My Little Pony and promises to come back when she's older.

Anyone who grew up in the Seventies will spot a problem here. But it is not an error: the anachronism is meant. Harper Curtis lives in a very odd House, and when the door opens he can step out into anywhen. Well, there are limits: he hasn't ventured back before 1929, and he can't go further into the future than 1993.

Past, present, future are nebulous concepts when it comes to time-travel: Harper's notion of 'the present' is likely Depression-era Chicago, when he stole the key to the House from a blind woman and opened the door to discover a corpse, a collection of oddments including a baseball card and a plastic horse, and -- scrawled on the walls -- women's names.

The handwriting is his own.

The Shining Girls is not a novel about Harper Curtis: indeed, we learn very little about him. Down on his luck in the 1930s; walks with a limp; still capable of being amazed and joyful about the future; obsessively tracking down and killing his 'shining girls'. Until one of them, not quite dead when he abandons her, decides to bring her almost-murderer to justice.

All the women in the novel -- all the shining girls -- are well-rounded characters. And many of them, as well as being successful in their chosen paths, achieve some kind of triumph over Harper, one way or another. Zora, the black welder, breaks his jaw; heroin-addicted artist Catherine welcomes him; Alice, who isn't Alice, beats him at his own game. But the heroine is Kirby, who guilts a semi-retired crime reporter into accepting her as his intern (he covered the attack that nearly killed her, but didn't realise she'd survived) so that she can trawl the archives of the Chicago Sun-Times for evidence that might help her find Curtis before he kills again. Because the next victim might be Kirby herself, once Curtis realises he didn't finish the job last time ...

This is a fairly spoilery review, because Curtis' habits, habitation and history are revealed only gradually. I suspect that the novel wouldn't work as well on a reread: the suspense, the growing realisation that something very odd is going on, is what made it such a good -- if occasionally distressing -- read. And the finale, though it has a justice to it that has nothing to do with legal process, feels like a trick. (He's here because he's here because he's here because he's here.)

That said, I did enjoy The Shining Girls, not least because of Beukes' strong spare language, and her eye for the details that bring the past -- several pasts -- to life. This is a novel as much about the breadth of womens' lives in 20th-century America as it's about the man who is drawn to destroy those strong, talented, successful women.

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