Tuesday, June 25, 2013
"The future is not as loud as war, but it is relentless. It has a terrible fury all its own."
Harper Curtis is a killer. He's also an opportunist. On the run from a bunch of thug vigilantes in Depression-era Chicago, he stumbles across a blind woman with a nice coat. Harper wants the coat, but it's what the woman says that sticks in his mind. “Are you Bartek?” As the woman becomes hysterical at his refusal, Harper kills her. And takes the coat as he planned. And finds the key. The key which leads him to the House. Where he finds his Shining Girls and realizes he's been a serial killer all along. You might think this would be the beginning of a rather standard serial killer thriller, if it weren't for the fact that the House also travels through time. It can't go further back in the past beyond the day Harper finds it, nor further into the future beyond 1993, and to no other place but that neighborhood in Chicago, but beyond those limitations, the House can take Harper to any day in any year he desires.
And then there's Kirby, Kirby Mazrachi. One of Harper's victims whom he attacked in 1989 after visiting her in 1974. Who survives and starts hunting him... in 1992. Fun, right? And that's just the beginning of the chase through time for these two. As Harper and Kirby play cat and mouse with each through the years, we see the story play out through various P.O.V.s., and not just those of the main characters. The use of differing P.O.V.s might be off-putting to some, seen as either a too-clever move or a distraction from the story. Instead, these shifting views allow us to get to know these characters intimately, even the one-offs (aka the victims), so that we can see their pain, their desires, their motivations (yes, even for the villain, Harper, despite what some reviewers have said; we get flashbacks to his youth, and we see how he became the monster we see in the novel). In this way, the story unfolds like a budding flower, exquisitely layered while remaining action-packed and swiftly-moving.
Beukes touches on several important moments and issues thanks to the time travel aspect. From issues like the Depression and “Hoovervilles,” to abortions and the Jane Collective (the underground abortion service); from moments in time such as the Radium Girls, the riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention, to the “Rosie the Riveters” of WWII, Beukes brings each of these to life through her character sketches, showing us the living, breathing side of these moments in history, not just what we've seen in books and film strips. And it is these characters that make the novel sing. Even the one-offs, the single-chapter sketches, illuminate living, breathing people. People with flaws and quirks, with dreams and aspirations. People with personalities from every slice of the spectrum. (The character of Alice is simply heart-breaking.) Even the main “heroic” characters of Kirby and Dan (Velasquez, the ex-homicide detective turned sports reporter who Kirby interns for) transcend their potentially cliched roles – plucky ex-victim, world-weary older man/father figure – to become actual human beings. Kirby is plucky, yes, but she's also a pain in the ass: prickly, difficult to deal with, snarky, with a drive that belies her punk exterior and a soft heart. I think what most awes me about Beukes's writing, though, is how utterly despicable she's made Harper. He is the epitome of evil, yet he's no black hat-wearing caricature of a villain. He has dimension. At times in the story, you get the feeling he knows what he's doing is wrong, that perhaps he wants to stop, and is willing to try. But something always pulls him back to murder. Maybe it's the House, maybe it's his inner demons. And the flashback scenes to his childhood are nicely ambiguous. His actions as a child raise questions. Was Harper born evil? Was he destined to become a serial killer? It would've been so easy for Beukes to take the easy way out and write Harper as a simple bad guy. Instead, she makes him just as human as Kirby and the other characters in the book. And that's the mark of a very talented writer.
I've never before read anything written by Lauren Beukes. I've read a sample of one of her previous books, Zoo City, and found it interesting enough to put on my Wish List, but that's it. Now, though, I'll be buying Zoo City ASAP as well as a copy of Moxyland and would suggest that anyone reading this review do the same. Not to sound like some sort of NY Times book review wannabe, but Beukes is most definitely an author to watch.
On a side note: Leonardo DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way, has optioned The Shining Girls and is developing it for television. Now that I've read the book, there's no way they'll ever be able to do the story justice. Nope, sorry, uh-uh, it can't be done. And now I'm sad.
Read June 1-June 7, 2013
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program June 25, 2013