When you give a sociopath the ability to time travel, nobody wins. But that's what novelist Lauren Beukes does in The Shining Girls, the atmospheric, mind-bending, creepy tale of a time-traveling serial killer and his extraordinary victims, woven through the history of 20th-century Chicago. In the 1930s, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house on the west side. When he walks out its front door, he's transported to whatever part of the future he's thinking of. While he's there he finds a girl—a "shining girl"—and he kills her. In the futures he visits, the house is always abandoned and run-down from outside—yet when he walks back in, it's always November 1931. Beukes calls it an "atemporal space"; one of her characters describes it as a "shitty wreck from the outside, decked-out crib on the inside."
The shining girls, nine in total, all live in Chicago at times of social upheaval between the 1930s and '90s. There's an underground abortionist, a transsexual, a social worker, a woman working in a shipyard during WWII, and an architect flirting with communism. To Harper, they stand out from the "low dullards that trudge through the days, interchangeable in any of the Chicagos if you only look past their clothes." He recognizes them because of their shine, and he takes pleasure in stalking them and then disappearing from their worlds. But in one trip to the 1980s, he gets away before learning that his victim, Kirby, survived.
Three years later, still bearing the scars of Harper's attack, Kirby decides to track him down using the resources of her workplace—she's an intern at the Sun-Times—and her supervisor, Dan, a former homicide reporter now covering baseball. As she digs up old cases, a process that puts her and Dan at odds and in danger, she gets closer to finding out the truth about Harper, and further into a reality that doesn't make sense.
The stories of Harper, Kirby, Dan, and the shining girls are intermingled to create a narrative that's both suspenseful and meditative. The girls, Beukes told me in an e-mail, are "unusual in their social context"—exceptional in their potential and their devotion to a meaningful, risk-taking life. Each of them pushes the edges of the role society expects them to play, and as we watch Harper's murder spree progress, we also see those expectations changing. Each shining girl benefits from the risk takers in previous generations, and in turn helps the next.
The bleak truth at the heart of The Shining Girls is that what makes the girls exceptional also makes them victims—that they shine so brightly is what catches Harper's eye. The opposite, hopeful truth is that no matter how many he finds, there are always more, and that one of them, Kirby, may have the power to stop him.
Lauren Beukes is a former journalist and the author of two previous science-fiction novels, Moxyland and Zoo City, who also writes comics, screenplays, and TV scripts. She lived in Chicago for a short time in 2000 (she's now in South Africa); a two-week research trip in 2012 convinced her that the city was an ideal setting for her conflict. She knew her third book would take place in a more realistic world than her first two, and that she wanted it to span the 20th century.
"It's all here," she said. "A bright shining city, Paris of the West, ambitious, gregarious, modern, birth of the skyscraper, but also with major issues around segregation, violence, corruption." As we follow Harper's journey through the century, we witness highs, lows, and unsung grit in the city's past: dancing radium girls in the 30s, female shipbuilders at the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company during the war, the Red Scare, the activism of the 60s, life in the housing projects, all the way to the 90s punk scene.
Beukes's historical survey, coupled with psychological portraits of a killer and his victims, suggests there's darkness and light in every age, and the struggle between them is eternal. By the end of The Shining Girls, though, that struggle fades into the background and the pure energy of the story takes over. Kirby's pursuit of Harper spans the century, culminating in a showdown between two people that may be taking place in both their times, or neither.