Reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Another review from Interzone in 2013

The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes, HarperCollins, 391pp, £12.99

In 1931, a homeless man lets himself into a derelict house in Chicago, using a key he finds in a jacket he’s stolen. He finds a room whose walls are covered in artefacts joined together by lines, with names, in the man’s own handwriting, yet he has never been here before. One of the names is “Kirby”.

In 1974, a man gives a young girl a toy horse for her circus game and promises he’ll see her again. Fifteen years later, he attacks her with a knife and leaves her for dead. Her name is Kirby.

Kirby Mazrachi is one of Harper Curtis’s “shining girls”, young women destined to die because they literally “shine” with potential. Harper’s job is to identify each one, then “claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out”. The house sets the agenda; Harper is simply its tool, killing as casually as he might rip the wings off an insect, never questioning the elaborate ritual of taking and leaving objects that the house forces him to carry out. Though he sees extraordinary transformations every time he emerges in a new decade he remains fundamentally untouched by them. He learns to navigate the world but makes no contact with it.

While the novel follows Harper’s activities during a window of eight months in 1931-32, that window opens out onto a huge vista encompassing almost twenty years of Kirby’s life, and beyond that the lives of other victims, from the 1930s to the 1990s. We know their names, what they do, and in some cases, what they would have become. We see how others grieve over their loss and inevitably wonder about the consequences of the deaths that are not fully explored. Indeed, given the occupations of some of the “shining girls”, we also think of all the other women put at risk by their murders. The historical sweep of this novel demonstrates over and over the pressures experienced by women who attempt to make a life beyond the home.

Kirby, the survivor, attempts to come to terms with the assault by tracking down her would-be killer, talking her way into an internship on a Chicago newspaper and persuading the man who reported her own attack to help her search the archives for related murders. To the reader, aware of the near impossibility of Kirby’s task, her tenacity is impressive. It is not difficult to see why the house might want such potential to be extinguished. Kirby was always going to be sharp, funny, competent; having escaped she is all the more so.

Obviously, this is not a conventional novel about a serial killer, although Kirby’s investigation into the circumstances of her assault is a compellingly written murder mystery. Nor is it a conventional supernatural horror novel; though this is another narrative form which relies heavily on the use of threats or violence towards women to drive its plot forward. Another subtext points up the tensions between a deterministic model of the world in which women are expected to fulfil their domestic roles rather than achieve autonomy in choice of career, sexuality or reproductive rights.

The Shining Girls is subtle and deceptive. It is possible to read it as a smoothly executed if somewhat odd mystery-thriller, but that would be to miss its multilayered portrait of the precarious situation of women in the twentieth century. Perhaps Beukes on occasion manipulates the plot a little obviously in Kirby’s favour, and lays too much stress on the brutality of Harper’s killings. Having said that, given how easily we ignore the fact that so many women are killed, in genre and in real life, because they don’t conform to a predetermined idea of how they ought to behave, this may be a very small price to pay if it prompts us to think more deeply about what we are reading. And there can be no denying that the most harrowing scenes in this novel involve those left behind to account for a life ended far too soon.