Possibly the strangest pairing I witnessed at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year was Lauren Beukes and Mikhail Shishkin. Beukes is a science fiction writer from South Africa who has also written for comics; Shishkin is a writer of literature with a capital R (for Russian) which pretty much squares the seriousness with which he regards his craft (I don’t mean to imply he was aloof or sombre – he was actually very funny). It didn’t help that the two novels were linked in the programme by time travel: when it was suggested to Shishkin that his novel featured time travel he simply said, “No.” I didn’t care, having enjoyed both of the novels and keen to hear both of the writers; Shishkin is one of Russia’s most significant contemporary writers; and I had wanted to read The Shining Girls ever since I had heard the ‘pitch’ – a time travelling serial killer.
One of the major differences between genre and literary writing is highlighted in comparing the two novels: whereas Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark cannot be said to have much of a plot at all, the plot of The Shining Girls is one of its greatest achievements, existing as it does across more than one plane (Beukes used a ‘murder wall’ in order to map it). Harper, the novel’s killer, stumbles across a House in 1931 which allows him to access different years up to 1993. He uses this to kill a number of women but he does not kill them in chronological order; therefore the order of his killings is different to the order of the deaths. (This, of course, makes it very difficult to even link the murders). That he also visits his victims in their pasts before killing them adds another layer of order to events.
Beukes ability to unravel all this without confusion, and while using a series of narrative viewpoints, points to a considerable skill in the novel’s construction.
Time travel, and a sophisticated narrative, is not the only thing that makes this novel stand out from the now ubiquitous serial killer genre. Beukes is particularly successful in making each victim, even if she only takes up a few pages, an individual. Many of them feel as if they could carry a novel themselves: Zora, a black welder in the shipyards of World War Two; Alice, a trans-gender performer in the 1940s; Margot who helps in an abortion clinic in the 1970s. Many of them also fight back, making their final moments more poignant but also reminding us that they cannot be simply pigeon-holed as victims. Zora, for example:
“”She grabs his belt, pulling him down with her. He struggles to raise the knife again and she punches him so hard in the side of the head that she dislocates his jaw and breaks three of her fingers, the knuckles crunching like popped corn on the stove.”
(Notice the care Beukes takes to use a metaphor her character would think of).
One victim, Kirby, survives and attempts to track down her attacker where the police have failed. Working as an intern for a newspaper give she access to their archives, but for much of the novel it seems unlikely she will even connect the murders never mind find the killer. Despite this, the resolution is credible, a result of Harper’s own personality as much as any investigative nous. Clearly to enjoy this novel fully one must accept the House as a time portal, though I suppose it could also be seen to represent a consistent and continuing violence against women. Even if that is a little too much for you, there is still much to admire in its wonderful characterisation and construction.