Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Shining Girls

At the start of the year, I promised to make a concerted effort to read more stories and books by lady writers. Over the years, I've neglected them. Yes, I've read Ursula LeGuin, and gone through the annual anthologies from Gardner Dozois and Hartwell and Kramer, but my reading has always been dominated by the products of male imagination. I'd say women contributed 10% of my reading material. This wasn't a situation I liked.

In 2013 to date, I've completed 88 books. Of these 88 books, women have at the very least contributed to 29. And I've made some discoveries in that time. I've returned to the disturbing imagination of Shirley Jackson. I've found the genesis of Connie Willis's time-travel books. I've visited the patriarchal totalitarianism/feminist utopia of Sheri Tepper's mind (from that, you'll be able to work out that I couldn't work out what The Gate to Women's Country was). And I've just started revealing the Aztec world of Aliette De Bodard's creation.

But none have entertained me as richly as Lauren Beukes, the South African author of The Shining Girls.

She's not a new discovery, but is a somewhat new talent. I read Zoo City last year, and Moxyland earlier this. The former - an urban fantasy with a South African twist - wasn't really my thing; I've never particularly enjoyed urban fantasy. But the latter was an acutely observed SF tale of the (very) near future which resonated with me. Then there was something about the South African setting, characters and sensibilities which was so fresh when compared to the clich├ęd Western European/US settings of far too many works. I loved Moxyland, and plan to re-read it before too long.

The Shining Girls, released earlier this year, is Beukes's third novel, and represents a major change in her setting. Gone are the run-down ghettos of Cape Town and Johannesburg, with the skyscrapers and downtown dumpsters of Chicago taking their place. But the writing remains the same; Beukes's style remains brisk but rich, packed with character.

The plot sounds simple, but its execution renders it complex and multi-faceted. A man - Harper Curtis - from the Great Depression stumbles into a time-travelling House, where he feels he is given his mission: kill the shining girls, girls with the potential to make a massive difference in Chicago. The girls are spread across several decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s. One - Kirby - escapes and tries to track him down in 1992-1993.

Simple enough, but the execution of the time-travelling makes events more complex and the story more compelling. Events are set in stone before they occur. There's a sense of inevitability to each of the murders, and trying to plot events in your own mind - trying to make sense of it all - is a reward all of its own. To follow each twist requires concentration. To make the connections and work out events produces a miraculous clarity from what might seem at first to be something of a mess. Beukes is an expert at producing complex, apparently jumbled plotlines that do, in fact, make perfect sense.

The main viewpoint characters are both intriguing. What drives Kirby is plain - she survived what should have been a brutal murder by Harper - but Harper's motivations always seem slightly clouded. Beukes states in the interview at the back that she wanted to debunk the Hannibal Lecter  myth of all serial killers being sophisticated and having a mystique, when in fact they are normally sad, pathetic men with sexual hangups, and she manages this by and large. But I still have a very faint problem with the way he goes from Depression-era loser to time-travelling serial killer on the say-so of the House. I suppose she'd say that he gets the sense of power from the House and that allows him to go on and become the monster he undoubtedly is. But if one thing could be improved in the characterisation, it is that.

However, that's only a very small quibble with an excellent book. Of all the books I've read this year, it's perhaps the first to leave me wanting more and being disappointed when it came to an end. I loved The Shining Girls. I'd recommend it to all and sundry. And it's probably my book of 2013.

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