The high-concept pitch might not sound like the sort of thing you’d expect from the author of socially aware novels Moxyland and Zoo City. But not only is Lauren Beukes’ tale of a time-travelling serial killer and the only girl to escape him gripping; it’s a painstakingly researched and utterly convincing.
Our killer is Harper, a World War One veteran in 1932 Chicago who stumbles upon a house that points him towards potential victims in different decades. All he has to do is picture a time and the house will take him there.
College student Kirby, his only surviving victim, bags an internship with a former crime reporter in 1992 and begins her search for a man who can slip in and out of history.
Beukes splits the narrative between Harper’s murders and Kirby’s research. While the relationship between Kirby and her boss (the disillusioned vet gradually warming to the sparky misfit) is familiar, their friendship feels natural and their warmth is an important contrast to Harper. Much of his past is a mystery; he’s not a character given to reflection. He’s driven by violent impulse and little else, and Beukes depicts his actions without flinching or lingering.
But it’s the chapters devoted to Harper’s victims that really stand out. The shining girls are chosen because of their strength and potential, and each one is a fully realised character. Their separate eras are wonderfully rendered and Beukes endears these women who are doomed to meet Harper’s knife to us with great speed and skill, from the paranoid Fifties architect to the ship-welding WW2 widow to the radium-painted ‘Glow Girl’.
The Shining Girls is both a fascinating journey through modern American history and an utterly compelling and chilling thriller.