Last night, I finished reading Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls, which has been much-discussed this year.
It’s quite good. Good enough that there was some stuff about it that I felt like talking about. There will be spoilers, natch.
2013 appears to be the year in which people publish books about supernatural serial killers and the brave girls who escape and oppose them. It’s the escaped trope of the year. Volcano asteroid movie summer!
So, the central metaphor of the book is for this reader its most interesting element. The Shining Girls functions on several levels, but for me the most telling one is the thematic; the book follows the career of a time-traveling serial killer who destroys extraordinary women, and the life of the one woman who escapes him…
And that central metaphor, sadly for me, is never more than glancingly resolved. Beukes presents a really brilliant overview of the lot of women of the 20th century–of how they have struggled with sexism and in many cases been destroyed by the unflinching serial murderer of the patriarchy, as it were–but of course, the joke is… these women aren’t extraordinary, although the narrative presents them as such.
Or maybe it’s fairer to say that in the real world, women are extraordinary in a lot of ways. I know extraordinary world-changing women who are teachers, preachers, stay at home moms… not just artists of one sort or another.
Every single one of them is a sympathetic and worthy character, which makes their inevitable deaths the more appalling, and on that level the book is stupidly effective. (I was particularly attached to Alice and Zora, and I’m not sure I ever quite forgave the book after they were lost.)
But the thing is… the book postulates, in a fashion that bothered me a little, that they are somehow special women. Or maybe it’s just that the antagonist and his time-traveling evil House perceive them as Special, and as Must Be Destroyed. (Protagonist Kirby’s mom Rachel is no less special than the Shining Girls, but she’s damaged and self-destructive… and the majority of non-Shining female characters are too venal and banal even to qualify as “evil”. So I’m not actually sure what the narrative wants me to think here.)
So there’s no clear thematic resolution or argument here–at least none that I was able to unpick. Patriarchy Destroys Women Who Dare Step Out Of Line. Film at 11. I wanted the book to tell me something more. To illuminate a complexity I hadn’t considered otherwise.
Of course, the fact that this is the biggest thing bugging me is pretty indicative of the general quality of plot, prose, characterization, structure, and just about everything else, I couldn’t find much to complain of. (The book is completely uninterested in how the House works, and what it’s relationship with this particular psychopath is, except for some hints that it provides what its resident desires, but I’m not sure that’s really a weakness when the narrative so patently does not care.)
The other thing that I’m still chomping on with regard to this book is the chewy unresolved issue of the causal loop. Of lack of free will. Of predetermination and predestination. In other words, on one level it seems as if these women are destined to be great… but they are also destined to die. There is no future in which they live.
Time does not fork in this book–nothing that happens is ever presented as escapable. This is made definite and more than definite by the limits placed on the antagonist’s ability to time travel–he can never go past his own death, though of course he doesn’t know it. (He also never seems to meet himself, which is a little odd, given how his activities create loops all over the place. Also, I wondered why he didn’t go for medical treatment in, say, 1984 instead of 1930. I’m just saying.)
On a different note, though. I’m impressed as hell by the South African writer’s ability to express certain aspects of the American zeitgeist, or weighty moments in American history. I’ve said for years that often, the people who write most tellingly of a place were not from there (Robert Frost was born a Californian. Willa Cather spent the first ten years of her life in Virginia.)
I’m pretty sure Lauren Beukes didn’t spend much time in Depression Chicago. But then again, maybe she’s got a House of her own.