He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sport coat. It is sweaty in his hand. Midsummer, here, is too hot for what he's wearing. But he has learned to put on a uniform for this purpose; jeans in particular. He takes long strides—a man who walks because he's got somewhere to be, despite his gimpy foot. Harper Curtis is not a moocher. And time waits for no one. Except when it does.

The girl is sitting cross-legged on the ground, her bare knees white and bony as birds' skulls, but also grass stained. She looks up at the sound of his boots scrunching on the gravel and broken glass—long enough for him to see that her eyes are brown under that tangle of grubby curls—before she dismisses him and goes back to her business. Harper is disappointed. His personal preference is for blue, the color of the lake, out where it gets deep, where the shoreline disappears and it feels like you're in the middle of the ocean. Brown is the color of shrimping, when the mud is all churned up in the shallows and you can't see shit for shit(2)
South Africa's Lauren Beukes might be one of the best genre writers of the early twenty-first century, but I prefer to think of one of its best writers, regardless of genre. Her third novel is her best to date, a beautifully-crafted, thoughtful work about time travel, a serial killer, and the young women he hunts.

As the Great Depression bowls over America, a disturbed, sinister man finds a house in Chicago that permits him to travel to points throughout the twentieth century. He uses the house to seek victims and then escape back into his own time. One of these Shining Girls survives, and she intends to stop him. Of course, she has no idea the man she seeks lives in another era. Only gradually do the impossible clues fall into place. Harper leaves behind artifacts: a rookie card that couldn't quite exist yet; bundles of dated cash.

The author shows impressive dedication to her premise. She fragments both narrative and timeline, and yet they develop into a coherent account, as readable and engaging as the best contemporary literature. Beukes has also thought through the implications of her version of time travel as much as the makers of Primer, but she's produced a more engaging (and far less confusing) tale. Along the way, The Shining Girls raises many questions about causality, free will, and related topics. One particular conundrum gets raised by the fact that Harper and the Home's previous occupant each get the key from the other at different points in time. Not quite as baffling, we have Harper's first vision of the interior of a place where he's going to have lived:

Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.

There are names scrawled beside them. Jinsuk. Zora. Willy. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Strange names of women he doesn't know.

Except that the names are written in Harper's own handwriting (36).

This novel features many characters, briefly but beautifully drawn, and a central character, Kirby Mazrachi, presented with considerable depth. Beukes earns extra points for making her killer Harper Curtis compelling, credible, and creepy, but never glamorous.

Whether describing a little girl's bedroom or a man's decaying corpse, Beukes has a feel for drawing the reader into the image. She deftly evokes eras she's never seen in a country she has only visited (it's her first book not set in South Africa).1 The encounters between killer Harper and his victims at various points in their lives evokes horror and wonder.

The book avoids many of the pitfalls that beset the literature of time-travel, and brings a genuinely original approach to the serial killer narrative. Wisely, I suspect, Beukes does not attempt to explain what makes time travel possible; the House simply lets people move between a range of years. We may be in SF, but it's best to view this as a realistically-rendered fantasy.

The Shining Girls though excellent, has a problem many readers will anticipate. If you read widely, especially in the speculative genres, you've likely encountered it before. A writer crafts a clever book around a high concept. She explores the implications of that concept, and uses it to reflect on real-world issues. The ending, however, cannot sustain the brilliance of what comes before.I found The Shining Girls's conclusion both predictable and strangely uncertain. Beukes does, to her credit, make consistent use of her time loop-- and this novel remains one of the best of the year.

Title: The Shining Girls
Author: Lauren Beukes
First published in April 2013;
first published in North America, September 2013.

1. Granted, her first book takes place in the near future, and her second, in an alternate, magical reality. She has stated she chose the American setting because a South African one would necessarily become mired in her home country's history of Apartheid. I suspect the novel ends in the early 1990s because the internet would affect profoundly certain aspects of this story.

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