Mulholland Books, 2012, 375 pages
"The future is not as loud as war, but it is relentless. It has a terrible fury all its own."
Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.
Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.
At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He's the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable - until one of his victims survives.
Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth....
The Shining Girls is a masterful twist on the serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing heroine in pursuit of a deadly criminal.
The Shining Girls are the victims of a sociopath named Harper Curtis, an unemployed vagrant who stumbles into a house in 1930s Chicago and discovers he can stumble out in the past or future. There is never any explanation for where the powers of this time-traveling house came from, but it exerts a strange compulsion on Harper - one which he does not try to resist.
He visits girls who "shine" with energy and potential, as children, and tells them he'll be back. Then he returns, when they are all grown up, and kills them. He takes souvenirs from each, and leaves them with some other victim in a different era.
Killing across the decades, from the 30s to the 90s, Harper becomes wealthy and very good at what he does, but always he's following cues from the house and his own psychopathic urges (which may be the same thing). He's a fairly one-dimensional but well-rendered sociopath: remorseless, pitiless, misogynistic, devoid of empathy, but still capable of being upset, disappointed, confused, angered, and making mistakes.
His victims are the more human characters. The author did a lot of work in researching Chicago at different points in its history, and Harper Curtis's victims range from a black single mother working a factory job in the 40s to an illegal abortion provider in the 60s to a Korean-American social worker in the 90s to his "final" victim: Kirby Mazrachi, the one who survived. Each victim is portrayed in sympathetic detail before getting gruesomely killed.
Kirby is the protagonist, left for dead by Harper in 1993, and determined to find the killer who nearly disemboweled her and then disappeared. Slowly she puts together clues spanning back decades. As a journalism student, she tries to use the resources of the paper she is interning at, getting help from a veteran reporter (who, in a totally not surprising at all twist, falls in love with her), and almost becoming unhinged as she comes to suspect the truth behind this mysterious serial killer.
This is as much a crime thriller and a historical fantasy as it is a time travel story. All the characters are normal people (except perhaps Harper), and the time traveling house is just a MacGuffin. The issue of paradox is not really addressed, nor is there much "science fiction" involved - even when Kirby figures out the time travel angle, she doesn't really think about it much - though "closing the loop" does happen in a more or less satisfactory way in the climax.
Verdict: The Shining Girls successfully blends several genres under the guise of story about a time-traveling serial killer. Very human characters, a somewhat arbitrary plot as characters are largely pulled in the direction indicated by an inanimate MacGuffin, but an interesting, bloody, well-researched historical thriller. 8/10.
Also by Lauren Beukes: My review of Zoo City.
My complete list of book reviews.