Lauren Beukes won critical acclaim for her first two novels, Zoo City and Moxyland, both of which were urban fantasies set in her native South Africa. Now she's set her imagination loose on a different continent, to explore the inner life of a serial killer in Chicago who figures out how to travel through time. The Shining Girls is a must-read.
Harper is an emotionally damaged former soldier, who has returned from World War I shattered and bloodthirsty. When at last his inner turmoil explodes into murder, he stumbles across a bizarre house while fleeing from the cops. From the outside, it's battered and boarded up, but inside it's luxurious and packed with hidden stashes of money. Though Harper enters the house during the winter of 1931, he can exit it at any time in the future — all the way up through 1993.
He calls it simply the House, and it talks to him, leading him to a room full of shimmering trinkets labeled with women's names. It's Harper's once and future serial killer trophy room, and it launches him on a murderous career unlike any you've ever seen in fiction before. He stalks his victims through time, finding them as little girls, taunting them, and then reappearing in their lives as adults to do his bloody deeds.
Harper isn't drawn to a particular physical type, the way most serial killers are. Instead, he pursues what you might call a narrative type, which he dubs "shining girls," or young women with tremendous potential and the guts to change the world for the better. Beukes leaps between Harper's murderous perspective and those of his victims, giving us incredible, often heartbreaking glimpses of women who are about to make a difference with their art, their activism, their scientific discoveries — or even just their will to succeed in a man's world. And then, as if Harper is some kind of avenging angel of the patriarchy, he cuts them all down.
Except one. Kirby is a shining girl who lives through Harper's attack, and dedicates her life to stopping him. We watch as she grows up into a punk-obsessed college student who turns her internship at the Chicago Sun-Times into an opportunity to solve her near-murder.
There are echoes here of Jonathan Demme's film adaptation of Silence of the Lambs, another emotionally gripping tale of a promising young woman tracking a serial killer obsessed by female power. Beukes' novel can easily be read as nothing more than a seriously creepy page turner about a serial killer. It's a thrilling mystery. But there's a lot more to it than a temporal cat-and-mouse game.
Beukes seems to suggest that Harper isn't just a time-traveling maniac stalking the streets of Chicago. He's a kind of dark, magical force haunting women's history itself, maiming the most promising girls, and snatching strong women out of the timeline before they can make a difference. Still, it's not a simple, black-and-white morality tale. As the novel goes on, we dive into enough victims' lives to see clearly that it isn't just men who cut "shining girls" down — they cut themselves down too, in both metaphorical and literal ways.
Looked at from this perspective, The Shining Girls is about all the ways extraordinary women have been destroyed by history. It captures a period during the twentieth century when women's roles in the United States were changing rapidly. But even as they gained more power, that power was snuffed out repeatedly, and violently.
If you want an edge-of-your seat thriller, this novel is perfect for your summer reading list. And it will prey on your mind long after you're done, making you wonder what other crimes are looping back and forth through history, waiting to cut you down when you least expect it.
The Shining Girls comes out June 4, and you can pre-order it now.