Gary K. Wolfe reviews Lauren Beukes
If The Time Traveler’s Wife wasn’t enough to convince you that the overworked time-travel warhorse has long since escaped the SF corral to become a general-purpose plot device for all sorts of fiction, Lauren Beukes’s much-promoted thriller The Shining Girls should help nail the case. Of course, long before Niffenegger and Beukes adapted the device (for a romance in Niffenegger’s case, a serial-killer novel in Beukes’s), a number of writers had discovered that unexplained, essentially magical time travel worked as well for most readers as the rationalized SF variety; both Jane Yolen (The Devil’s Arithmetic) and Octavia Butler (Kindred) managed to produce time-travel classics without a SF device in sight. So the high-concept pitch of a serial killer who magically moves backward and forward in time, with almost no rationale or agency for the shifts, seems pretty irresistible, and Beukes – who, on the basis of her first two novels, knows her way around SF, and knows that isn’t what she’s doing here – gets credit for not only mainstreaming the concept, but developing it with a greater level of narrative skill than might be expected from such a pitch. The almost brazen irrationality of the tale is likely part of its appeal, since irrationality and horror have never exactly been strangers.
The means by which the serial killer, a decidedly unpleasant and affectless fellow named Harper Curtis, travels through time is a house he discovers in Chicago in 1931 (or ‘‘the House,’’ as Beukes’s infrequent lapses into movie-poster prose would have it). We know almost nothing about Curtis except that he’s recently worked as a riveter on the Triborough Bridge in New York and is in flight from having just killed a man during a card game in Chicago’s depression-era Hooverville. He steals a coat from an old woman, finds a key in the pocket, and is somehow led by mysterious music to the magical condemned house whose door the key fits and which will be his base of operations over the next several decades. His self-appointed mission is to find a series of vibrant ‘‘shining girls’’ and kill them – even by the standards of serial-killer fiction the murders are startlingly brutal – but he decides to add a certain panache by first meeting the girls as children, years before he will return to eviscerate them, and by leaving mementoes of other victims at each murder scene. This sets up a terrific opportunity for inexplicable mysteries – a woman murdered in 1943 is found with a Jackie Robinson baseball card that could not have existed before 1947 – but for the most part Beukes doesn’t structure these situations as mysteries to be solved, at least until we get to the major alternate point of view.
That point of view belongs to Kirby Mazrachi, his only victim to survive, who, a few years after her attack in 1989 – the most unforgettably grisly scene in the book – signs on as a newspaper intern, determined to track down her assailant. She’s as passionate and brittle as Curtis is cool and loony, and soon enlists the aid of her supervisor, a sports reporter who had earlier worked on her case when he was in homicide. Through assiduous research and an unlikely series of strokes of luck, she begins to piece together Curtis’s tale, but at the same time he learns that she has survived, and the result is a two-way cat-and-mouse game that leads to a thrilling, if not exactly startling, conclusion.
Other chapters offer the points of view of other characters, from bystanders like Kirby’s supervising reporter Dan and a neighborhood kid named Mal, or from other victims in various years, and for the most part Beukes evokes a convincing, well-researched sense of place and time, even nailing most of the details of Chicago in different eras (though not always; State Street does not lead you into the ‘‘west Loop,’’ for example). It’s in these chapters, though, that the serial-killer plot sometimes becomes oddly inert; we’re introduced to some fascinating characters, such as an aspiring female architect grappling with the sexism of her profession in 1954, only to know exactly what’s going to happen to them. These little time-capsule sketches of women in various periods of Chicago history are sharply envisioned, and in fact most of these women are far more interesting than Curtis himself; it’s a bit disappointing seeing them reduced to the fodder the plot demands. The mystery of why these particular women are chosen is never made clear – surely they’re not the only shining ones – and Kirby’s tentative piecing together of Curtis’s history is never entirely convincing (how could it be, with a time-traveling house as the culprit’s dark secret?) There are indeed some musings about fate, destiny, and free will implied by all these shenanigans, but what makes the novel provocative is Beukes’s often haunting evocation of places and characters, and of a strange house outside of time – a descendant of houses from Poe and Bulwer-Lytton to Lovecraft and Straub – rather than from any particular neatness in plotting.