To be honest, I never expected to be the recipient of an ARC of The Shining Girls – considering what a big 2013 title this book is and will prove to be, I thought that most of the available ARCs would go to the big newspapers and such here in SA, so I was very chuffed when a copy was dropped off at my workplace and given to me. 🙂
I’ve been excited about this novel since the moment I heard about it (and it goes without saying that any new novel from Lauren, after Moxyland and Zoo City, would excite me), and was even more pumped up for it when I read the first chapter a couple of months ago. In that chapter I was introduced to Harper Curtis and Kirby – Harper the shiver-inducing gift-giver, and Kirby the fragile-seeming girl who had created a wonderful little circus in the dirt. That first chapter left me with chills and a rumbling foreboding, because I realized after reading it that in The Shining Girls Lauren was moving in an entirely new direction; she would be taking me down a path that neither Moxyland nor Zoo City had explored. By the time of this realization, the term Time-Travelling-Serial-Killer wasn’t even important any more – the glimpse I had received of Harper had made enough of an impression on me that I knew I would be reading the book as soon as I could.
So, when I got the book, I re-read the first chapter, not because I had forgotten the chilling circus-and-pony scene, but because I wanted that seamless slide into the novel – and the pages flew by, the tale opening up like a carnivorous, giant rose, ready to capture that person unwary enough to draw too close to smell the enticing scent. Harper, the novel’s antagonist, already had my attention – like all the twisted, off-centre killers I’ve met in books, I couldn’t help the fact that I wanted to know more about him. Here was this man, chatting amiably to a little girl, enticed by her just as he is trying to entice her, and he doesn’t hide what he is. So secure in his purpose that he doesn’t even need to hide it from me, the reader. The hints in that first chapter of what we would discover about Harper were expertly doled out – almost like catching the myriad scents that make up a dinner before experiencing the dishes’ complete smell. And Kirby, this little girl indulging her imagination as she plays in dirt, trying to attain some measure of control over her life even at such a young age, was already the broken person I would get to know throughout the novel; broken, yet stubborn in her resolve to try to make sense of her life. So, as first chapter’s go, Chapter One of The Shining Girls was, in my opinion, perfect.
Then I fall deeper into the novel – gaining some more background on Harper, such as hints of his past, the kind of dark things he’d already done, discovering the preliminary sparks of how his mind works; and back to Kirby, who is frayed and damaged and taut, looking after her mother even as she’d trying to find that something that will give her a reason to not be like her mother. The chapters tumble onward, not like something out of control and direction less but with a sense of relentless and devastating motion – in this novel, there is no immovable object, nothing to stand in the way of the constantly-building tension. Lauren achieved this by jumping, time-wise, in each chapter – so please do pay attention to the dates in which each chapter is set; they’re not just there as a time-stamp. 😉 She also does this by revealing more and more of Harper, his methods, how he learns to focus on only what he needs and not the spectacle of the world around him; it also happens in Harper’s chapters that Lauren plays plays with what’s important and what isn’t, not only plot- and character-wise but also world-wise – she seems to ask, almost subliminally just what about the world has improved with technology? Does the progress that civilization continuously faces come at the cost of our dwindling humanity, or do we actually discover more of ourselves? It’s not an in-your-face exploration / wondering; it’s beautifully subtle.
Now, I was worried that I wouldn’t care about Kirby – after all, when reading the book’s blurb you find out that she has survived this killer once already. So, did that knowledge regarding her taint her growth as a character and my having to care about her, as all story tellers and writers must do in order for their characters to live? No at all. In fact, I found myself slipping more and more into a ‘For fuck sakes, Kirby, just stop this, just let it go!” frame of mind as she began her search for the man who almost killed her. She pushes herself into a position that’ll make it easier for her to gather information and over-looked evidence, meets another wonderful character with his own pain and mistakes and worries, Dan Velasquez.
We find out more about her mother, about the sad, almost unthinkable circumstances of her conception, and finally get to the scene that forced her onto the converging-with-Harper path once again – how she is attacked by Harper, what happens during the attack, and how she survives, is incredibly intense and graphic. It was, to my mind, expertly placed – it’s the tipping point of the novel, that moment in which the reader realizes that the brakes have failed and the lights are out and that you can’t help but clench your jaw harder and harder with each passing page. Layer upon layer of characterization, for each important character, has converged, and from the moment of Kirby’s survival, these layers combine with the intricate plot to steamroll the reader towards not only a deeper understanding of Kirby, Dan, Harper, even Rachel (Kirby’s mother), but a sense that if you just read with more attention you’ll be able to figure it out – but the beauty of it is is that you can’t. Why? Because of the House that Harper uses, this enigmatic and terrifying place in all times – it’s the only character in the novel that remains mysterious, the only character we gain almost no understanding of. Did it work for me, this lack of detailed information about the House, how it works, why it exists, etc.? Without a doubt. Sometimes, as readers, as those hijacked to our imaginations, sometimes it’s just better not to have all the knowledge. Sometimes a force of nature is just that, and it cannot be described or experienced or understood in a way that a human mind can understand.
This novel is insanely good – multi-layered, both in terms of characters and their growth and progression through the tale, as well as in how it was constructed and written – Lauren has a beautiful, fluid style, a way of writing that I can only describe as slipping words into the current of the story at exactly the right moment. This novel is set entirely in the US-city of Chigago, so there’s no South African link as with Moxyland and Zoo City, but then there’s absolutely no reason for a link to SA, so I wasn’t disappointed at all. I cannot say, of course, that Lauren captured the various time-periods of Chicago that we experience in this novel (since I’ve never been to Chicago), but what did come through strongly for me was the city’s presence, the sense that every building and every street had a story to tell, that every window -broken or whole- was watching, and that every moment of silence was like the preparatory-to-striking breath of a predator. There are instances of beauty in Lauren’s descriptions of the city, but the majority of the novel takes places in places pregnant with sadness and tension and exhausted silence; there’s a brooding atmosphere evident in each scene, whether we’re with a Radium Girl or in the bullpen of a newspaper; the hints of beauty are more stark for this, more affecting, even as they’re few and far between.
Now, as you all know, I usually read Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, the odd thriller and murder mystery, so I guess you might be wondering whether -having similar reading-tastes- you might enjoy this novel? I’m pretty sure that you will, for a range of reasons:
1), we all read what we read to live the events in the book through the characters, and Lauren has created memorable characters in this story – characters that will disturb you, will irritate you (because you want to give them advice and help them), will have you gnawing at your nails or smoking cigarette after cigarette (because you want them to persevere, to survive, to find that way out), characters that will leave you with a wave-like melancholy (Kirby’s mother), or a cheer at every chapter they appear in (Dan), but most importantly, characters that you’ll care about, characters that might just leave you realizing things about yourself – because, after all, we live different lives and experience different events through the characters in novels, don’t we?
2) the time-travelling aspect of the novel is really intelligently done – it’s not just a trope, a fixture, a way of moving from A to Z and everywhere in-between. Coupled with the mysterious House and the city of Chicago, it’s a thing you cannot predict or fully understand, and that makes it wonderful and terrifying at the same time.
3) Harper Curtis – the bad guy, the antagonist; he’s not a stereotype, as far from a cliché as it’s possible to be (which is as it should be!). He’s a despicable man, with a world-view that is both shiver-inducing and completely understandable – he’s so damned memorable because you will live in his head throughout this novel, and you won’t be able to help yourself thinking, “Would I really do things differently if I had found the House? Would I choose the path I’ve always walked or the path whispering to me?” There aren’t many serial killers in my list of most memorable, and Harper definitely joins that list – Hannibal Lecter (Thomas Harris), The Travelling Man (John Connolly), Patrick Süskind’s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and Kaaron Warren’s Stevie (Slights – who freaks me out so much I still haven’t been able to finish the novel).
This novel is disturbing, thrilling and intelligent – Lauren has shifted into new territory with this often-sad, eminently readable tale of a hunter and his prey, of the House you’ve always wondered about but never had the guts to enter, of the strength of character and the pull of destiny that so often rules lives, and of the simple yet often-overlooked beautiful moments that stitch together our lives with lasting and reverberating echoes. It’s a tale in which time travel is the shadowy, always-watching character, not the pipes-and-electronics vehicle employed by the characters. And it’s Lauren’s best novel yet!
10 / 10
Today is the official South African release date of The Shining Girls, and if you don’t want to wait until the 25th of April or the 4th of June, respectively, head over to Exclusive Books’ website and order your copies! For those willing to wait, click here for Amazon US (4 June) and here for Amazon UK (25 April).
For more info about Lauren and her work, check out her website here, and if you’d like a beautiful special edition of The Shining Girls (done by the excellent Joey HiFi), click this link!
Until next time,