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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes Very damn good! (Thanks, karen!)

How to begin?

3. The garden-variety fictional serial killer — or at least any incarnation after Dr. Hannibal Lecter — is like the world’s worst poet. Every creation is a baroque manifestation of personal desires and symbology. The cop is a New Critic, reading through the signs and severed limbs to see the True Meaning, and thus, capture the killer.

And the writers of such fictions are locked into the closed loop of genre, forced to travel the stations of the cross and genuflect at each utterly familiar landmark or plot point. Lauren Beukes is having none of this malarkey.

Harper Curtis is casually vicious. He does indeed, as he travels through time dispatching his Girls, follow some ornate sense of purpose, does cut and bind and disembowel with an eye toward his own perverse aesthetic. But Beukes mentions such details merely in passing, and she avoids the overdetermined internal monologues of childhood trauma which so often spawned the killer.

Harper just appears, pursues his agenda with commitment, but is prone to homicidal distractions, falls prey to fits of unplanned aggression. He simply murders, or he doesn’t; he simply does what seems right to him, with a great deal of malice but none aforethought.

He is not the generic Icon, yielding to the protagonist’s (and our) critical interrogations, due to be captured as soon as she (and we) solve the puzzle. He simply is. And Kirby’s pursuit is equally declarative, a quest which leads to questions that are never really answered. The goal is not interpretation, but revenge and resolution.

2. The house Harper enters in depression-era Chicago has a body, and an upstairs room with an array of strange small personal objects and names scribbled on the wall, in his handwriting. And he just knows what to do; he somehow knows that the house will take him through time, that he travels and tracks these names throughout 60 years of Chicago history. He finds these girls, and he kills them.

There is no explanation for the House. Or the homicides.

Yet there’s a mad genius to Beukes’ use of the time-travel conceit. Because time-travel novels echo the pathological determinism of the insane killer. Serial killers (or our mythical variants) must return to and repeat their crimes over, and over, and over again. The time-travel plot is a variant of such repetitive determinism, like a temporal locked room — characters move from point to point but do not escape the implications of events. Instead, we move inexorably toward them.

This creates great tension and dread, and THE SHINING GIRLS is a gripping read. We know the (book’s particular) plot and the (book’s generic-template) Plots here, know what has happened or will happen — and are in some ways, like Kirby or even Harper, trapped in the loop.

1. Lauren Beukes has written a high-concept thriller that manages to ground the hyperbolic pitch of its serial-killer-traveling-through-time plot (the misguided back-cover copy touting “THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE meets THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO“) in intense human feeling. Harper Curtis is no outsized Hannibal — he’s mean, dirty, malignant, mortal. Kirby Mazrachi is no supergenius hacker, no psycho-hunting savant — she’s a smart woman who fiercely pursues her attacker. The book moves, in every sense of that verb.

5. I loved it. And loved these characters. And loved the dizzying structural play. It’s as affecting and ingenious a thriller as I’ve read in some time.

Full review at Bookgasm.com