Evil has played an essential part in our stories since stories were born. The narrative benefits of existential threat are just too compelling. A threat is something to endure, to triumph over or –just occasionally- to succumb to.
The latest personification of evil to gain sustained cultural salience is the serial killer. The latest wave, from Dexter to Hannibal, was kicked off by the commercial and critical success of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, 25 years old this year. That novel’s Hannibal Lector goat-eyed lack of dissembling and invasive insight proved a seductive template for many fictional killers who have come since – accomplished, calculating, indelible.
The Shining Girls is determined to be different. Lauren Buekes is a South African writer whose previous two novels – Moxyland (2008) and Zoo City (2010), were speculative fictions shot through with a restless nudge at the genre’s conventions. For her third novel, Buekes turns her hand to the thriller, adding a sci-fi sprocket to the whir along at its core.
In Chicago 1974, a thin man steadies his stride as he limps across a park towards a six-year-old girl. Interrupting the circus she’s fashioned out of chipped cups and a bumblebee, they talk uncomfortably. His determination to be memorable comes up against her tenacity. He leaves her with what will later prove to be an impossible gift, promising ‘I’ll come back for you.’
The girl, Kirby Mazrachi, grows up to survive –just barely- a vicious attack thirteen years later. The thin man did come back, biding his time in a way other than waiting. Fleeing from Hooverville vigilantes in 1931, Harper Curtis murderously obtains a key that wills him towards an abandoned tenement. Inside is a luxury at odds with the boards on the windows, a body with its head caved in and upstairs a gaggle of luminescent objects. Among them a baseball card, contraceptive pills, a toy plastic horse. Next to each is the name of a woman, in –despite this being his first visit- Harper’s handwriting. The House (always capitalised in Harper’s thoughts) offers the gift of time-travel in service of the obsessions of those who hold its key. Harper’s obsession is girls possessed of confidence, attainment, resilience – the Shining Girls.
Harper visits each of his Shining Girls first as children, giving each a gift that serves both his need to be memorable and the novel’s to be anachronistic. He then pays them a second, killing, visit to them as women. The sequence is Harper’s alone, carefully nestled into chapters that follow a breadcrumb logic of clues rather than chronology. Pinging against this is the perspectives of Harper’s victims across time and Kirby’s efforts in 1992 to uncover the truth of her attack. Kirby, working as an intern for veteran reporter and curmudgeonly foil Dan Velasquez, is a doughy hero; tough, resourceful and bright. But the novel’s real energy comes from the variances that Buekes is determined to strike from the commonalities of the thriller genre. Harper stands for what cops know about serial killers. Rather than a supremely talented murderer, Harper is a dangerous dullard, propelled by a darkly odd obsession, but fundamentally opportunistic. Our sense of the meaning of events is also up for grabs, as Buekes has Harper muse that stories are a
‘…desperate attempt to order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random.’
This approach also suits the central speculative element of this novel. Like a caulk line drawn to represent a wall, the notion of a time-travelling house can’t much resist a wetted thumb before its useful suggestion is dispelled.
Most vitally, Buekes takes real care to allow Harper’s victims their own voice. These are recognisably women, rather than props for evidence. The high point of this approach is Zora, a welder on the 1943 Chicago shipyards. Her sheer endurance, both as a widower raising children, and as an Afro-African in a white workplace are astute fishhooks to catch the reader’s sympathy. However, Zora lives beyond her character outline in a way that Buekes’ other characterisations do not.
But its not character that drives this book; it’s the structure of the tale. As Kirby tips us off
‘There are only so many plots in the world. It’s how they unfold that makes them interesting.’
Lacing through seven decades, The Shining Girls weaves in and out of perspectives and timeframes with a sureness that speaks of much careful construction. But this is a strength that succumbs to a weakness before the tale is done. Sustained empathy requires an evenness of characterisation that this novel lacks. As a done-it of neither the ‘who’ or the ‘how’ variety, the last third -which should have hummed with an urgent fluctuation- instead breaks down into a stuttering game of kill-chasey.
If Buekes’ gamble with the thriller genre really pays off, it is primarily in its hove to the truth of violent death, its horrifying mundanity. In fiction of course, truth is only ever part of the story, measured as it must be against cozenage, pace and context. Given its real incidence is vanishingly small, its fair to wonder at our sustained cultural interest in serial killers. In a society like ours, where the leading cause of death for women is someone they know, do serial killers –the stranger at the door- provide a fictional distraction from the real threat, the man at the dining room table?