I consider myself a fan of Lauren Beukes, but she’s just done that thing that real artists can sometimes do. It’s the moment when the actor playing Nurse Ratchett gets booed during the encore, and she smiles, because boos indicates that the performance was superfluous.
And this is how I feel.
I feel like Lauren Beukes has outdone herself as she has written a character for whom I just feel revulsion. As soon as Harper comes into the pages, I found him distasteful, but he is so much worse, so horrible a detestable human being whose motives are never truly fully explained (and he is so vile the reader is left wondering if they really do want to know more of his inner workings or not).
There is no escaping it; it is a clingy sensation that feels like it has soiled my brain, like a sickly unwashed human smell of rotten crotch and armpit that invades my head space. This is skilful writing, and perhaps also testament that I am not a huge crime reader, and perhaps ill-prepared for such a character.
The book is a crime novel, grim hard serial killer crime, but it utilises science fiction or rather time travel to enable the story, to give it a twisting and perplexing element, cleverly using a concept that is not hard to grasp for the reader and which, when used for such heinous purposes, is just plain scary.
Harper is a murderer. He has murdered in 1930s Chicago and in doing so he finds himself in a house, drawn to it, and once inside he discovers he must have been there before, for there are names of girls next to strange trinkets, and the names are in his own hand. He realises the house is the machinery of time travel and in a way a destiny of sorts is set as he sets about his brutal terror of killing these women, his Shining Girls.
The women are outstanding. They have good characterization for the length that we see them, and are portrayed as strong women of their time. The reader is drawn to them; they are charismatic and posses amazing potential as interesting and varied individuals.
They stand as opposites to Harper who is much more of an enigma, which as a reader I was perplexed about, questioning whether I wanted to know more about this horrible man, if it was the First World War that made him this way, or just assume that the lack of detail enhanced his monstrosity in my mind.
Harper stalks his Shining Girls as children and then returns to kill them when they are grown up, as if these women did not have enough to deal with, to fight against, they are faced with a vivid and visceral depressing fate, as their lives are cut short, never to reach their full and seemingly amazing potential.
His enjoyment of their death is grim, his motivations are not too detailed, he just enjoys it, relishes it, and then pleasures in it as demonstrated by way he enjoys pleasuring himself at the sites of the murders, before or after they have occurred, some time away, but the location important to fulfilling his vile self gratification and desires.
There is some serious violence in this book, portrayed in a very chilling way, and because I knew it was coming I sometimes hated it, in the way that I loved Kirby, the fightback, a victim who evades being murdered and then becomes a nemesis of sorts, working incredibly hard to put together the puzzle. Tenacious and tough, and a punk in lifestyle as well as character, she is yet thoughtful in her dialogue and I really liked her.
I wanted her to get this bastard and get him really bad. Kirby gets work on a Chicago newspaper as an intern as a way to unlock the puzzle and this leads to some excellent interactions with the older Dan, who fulfils a variety of roles with Kirby, both growing on the reader as they find one another in a way.
The narrative is not linear, yet this does not affect the story as some narratives do. Each chapter is distinct and I loved the author’s portrayal of Chicago.
I am not au fait with the city enough to truly say if Beukes has got the nature of it perfect, but as someone who has visited that city, I felt I was there, and Beukes seemed to capture something about the Depression, a time the protagonist Harper came from, that felt really right, to a person who only knows it as history.
I do know a little bit about time travel having read stories with it; it is after all a fictional concept of course, and Beukes utilises this one truth about it, that it doesn’t exist in any known way, and therefore whatever way it does occur is fictitious and open to interpretation to great advantage.
There is no reason to explain the mechanics of the time travel. Suffice that the house tied to Harper is the machinery and this unclutters the story, allowing the horror of the crimes and the efforts to stop Harper to be unfettered, while there is ample material to quiz one’s mind, as the story steps from time to time – one has to be sharp and pay attention.
I was especially impressed (potential spoiler warning!)with the loop at the ending, because the house is where a loop occurs, one that makes everything rather inevitable and is an ever onwards spiral.
Some readers might call this a paradox, but how can that be, when the mechanics of the house, of this time travel, is a mystery and along with the fighty Kirby, it is this skilled use of fiction that I really enjoyed.
As I reached to put the book back in its cellophane envelope, I realised that the uneasy feeling that Beukes had instilled, the fear of even the stench of Harper, had totally captured me, as only incredible writing can.
As a reader I’ve liked Lauren Beukes’ (which rhymes with Lucas, if you were wondering) writing since he picked up Moxyland in South Africa.