Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is a novel that combines the approach-ability of the mainstream novel with the complexity of time travel creating something rather unique. Opening with a chilling prologue detailing the first confrontation between our protagonist and our antagonist the novel quickly segues into what feels like a straightforward chase scene during the Great Depression. It is during this opening scene in which Harper Curtis stumbles upon the house that will change his life, a house that allows him to open the door onto just about any time and a house the contains links to the titular Shining Girls. The novel bumps back and forth between time and perspective detailing the Harper’s escapades across time, the lives of his Shining Girls, and experiences of Kirby as she embarks upon a quest to find the man who tried to kill her.
The Shining Girls takes the tropes of a thriller and runs them through the speculative mill. The reader travels along with Harper as he embarks upon his quest to find the Shining Girls. While in the opening chase seen there is little doubt that Harper is no good there is also little to indicate the depths to which he will sink later in the novel. Since the reader spends so little time with Harper before he encounters the house there is a certain degree of ambiguity to his story. I found myself wondering if the cruelty Harper exhibits over the course of the novel is something that was present before Harper finds shelter in the house. To her credit this isn’t an aspect of the novel that Beukes’ dwells on. It seems present in the novel as subtext and particularly enhanced given the final events of the novel.
Beukes’ shows a deft hand in distilling the elements of time travel in the novel and infusing them into the story with very little effort. This isn’t a novel of how or why . There is no lengthy digression on the complexities and intricacies of time travel rather it is an element of the story that is excepted as truth and treated as an inexplicable and inescapable fact of the world. By freeing herself from the necessity of having to explain how things happen or what things mean Beukes’ afforded herself the freedom to play with constraints of time. By binding the extent of her play to the confines of a serial killer mystery Beukes’ manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that a story involving time travel could fall into.
If the novel were merely an examination of time travel it might not be worth your time. However, Beukes manages to provide a compelling cast of character to fuel the story’s momentum. Kirby is a fascinating character a strong female lead who has risen above the label of victim yet is irrevocably changed by the scars of violence left by her attacker. Beukes’ understated characterization of Dan Velasquez leans a bit on the familiar visage of the aging newspaper man whose investigative instincts are reawakened by his young protege but who struggles to move beyond his own bitterness. The relationship that unfolds between the two feels a touch predictable and if Kirby were the Manic Pixie Dream Girl she initially appears, would have unfolded in a predictable way. Thankfully, Kirby’s drive, resourcefulness, and individuality allow her to rise up beyond this trope. As I stated earlier, Harper feels like he was intentionally left as a blank slate. While he is certainly selfish and embittered when he is first glimpsed fleeing through a Hooverville there feels like is sharp shift towards cruelty and violence after he discovers the house.
Beukes’ seamless use of time travel in The Shining Girls is a wonder to behold and she weaves a fascinating web across the entirety of the novel. I could find no holes, investigative or temporal, in her story. The Shining Girls is a fascinating examination on causality disguised as a thriller. While fans of science fiction might be off-put by the lack of any actual science Beukes’ ability to examine a complex idea in a frighteningly easy way is a testament to her ability. This is an exciting and wholly satisfying novel whose taut pacing belies its meaty intellectual content. Highly recommended.