Lauren Beukes on time travel in The Shining Girls

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THE day after I finished Lauren Beukes’ startling novel The Shining Girls, I walked through central Edinburgh.

It was one of those bright, brittle East Coast days – every outline sharp and clear, my eyes watering not only from staying up late to devour Beukes’s thriller but from the sharp wind throwing up swirls of grit. The weather may have been familiar, but the city somehow felt a little different. There was something odd, perhaps vaguely threatening; a man standing at the top of the station steps just waiting, another huddling in a doorway to light a cigarette, and each took on a slightly sinister countenance.

I’m not prone to paranoia, I’m not naturally nervy, but a couple of days spent in the company of Harper Curtis, Beukes’s serial killer, a man she describes as “absolutely morally bankrupt”, leaves an impression. Beukes (from the FAQ section of her website, her name “rhymes with mucus. Or, if you prefer, George Lucas”) has created a truly frightening, psychopathic killer, a force of inexplicable malevolence. The fact that he can travel through time, selecting his victims as children then return years later to snuff out their lives, adds another level of horror. Curtis is utterly random, utterly undetectable. He’s skin-crawlingly horrifying, indulging in brutal, remorseless violence, taking sexual pleasure in the pain of his “shining” girls. It’s little wonder then that the streets of Edinburgh seemed to drip with sinister intent.

Sitting in her home in Cape Town, Beukes smiles wryly (we’re speaking on Skype) when I tell her of my disturbing walk to work on a sunny, spring day. “It was very hard writing Harper,” she says. “The only way I could cope with it was to keep f***ing him up, but then I had to keep track of his bloody injuries. It was terrible.”

The Shining Girls is Beukes’s third novel, following Moxyland and Zoo City, for which she won the Arthur C Clark Award in 2012. She’s also written comics (including Fairest, a spin-off of Bill Willingham’s Eisner Award-winning series, Fables), television scripts and journalism. Moxyland, written while she was studying for her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, is a political, tech-savvy thriller which tackles issues such as the dangers of a surveillance society and the use of smartphones as a form of social control. Zoo City, is a hardboiled crime novel set in Johannesburg, replete with black magic and magical animals. Add The Shining Girls, a serial killer novel with a time-travelling twist, and you’d have to say, as a body of work, it’s eclectic. But there are threads which hold Beukes’s novels together. She baulks at labels – she says she prefers the idea of tags, as in tagging a photo online or a blog post – but running throughout her work there is a streak of narrative inventiveness, a willingness to play with the formalities of genre fiction (often in relation to novels that have become literary sensations – The Shining Girls evokes parallels with both Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), and an abiding interest in social issues.

The Shining Girls is a dazzlingly complex narrative. Set in Chicago, the time travelling device means that Beukes has three timelines running consecutively and time-shifts that take us both forwards and backwards, from the Great Depression to birth control clinics of the 1970s, from 1980s youth culture to the dockyards of the 1940s. The narrative is split into chapters written from Harper’s point of view and those of the women he targets, including Kirby Mazarachi, the one woman who has the audacity to survive his brutal attack.

There are also chapters focusing on Dan Velasquez, the washed-up ex-crime reporter, now writing about baseball, who Kirby enlists to help her track Harper down (Beukes’s Blomkvist if you like). I’m not quite geeky enough to work through the novel methodically checking that each of the timelines tallies perfectly, but I’ve been assured by others more tenacious than myself that it’s flawless. Beukes smiles and lifts up her laptop, angling the video-cam to show me a mass of notes, pictures and string stuck on the wall. It looks like the kind of thing that you see in TV crime shows, detailing the grizzled detective’s efforts to track down a serial killer. “That’s Harper’s killing timeline,” she says pointing to one strand of string, “the middle bit is the novel’s actual timeline, and that’s the historical timeline.” She puts the laptop back on the desk and smiles. “It was pretty horrendous.”

The downside of moving around in history as Beukes does is the level of research required and the sheer effort of keeping track of the narrative. The upside, she explains, was the opportunity to select moments in time that genuinely fascinated her. “I was interested in the 20th century. I didn’t want to do a Bill and Ted and go back to the dinosaurs and Shakespeare, Hitler and all the rest of it. I was interested in how the 20th century shaped us and how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

“The whole book is a time travel loop but I also get to look at loops of history – the Depression, the fact that women’s rights are still an issue today.”

Beukes creates a fascinating cast of women characters – Willie, a pioneering architect struggling in an all-male profession in the 1950s; Zora a welder working to support her kids after losing her husband in the Second World War; Jeanette, the only one of Harper’s victims who glows in the way that we too can see, painting herself with radium as part of her burlesque act as the firefly.

The brevity with which Beukes creates and then ends these women’s lives, introducing us to them often as children, before Harper dispatches them with unblinking cruelty is at times truly painful, a testament to the power of her writing (it reminds me of Annie Proulx’s skill in Accordion Crimes). It also, she says, serves to counterbalance to the violence inflicted against them; it’s a 
way of ensuring that they are more than just victims.

“I could’ve written a novel about any one of those women,” she says. “It’s much more about who they were, their lives rather than their deaths. [In crime fiction] it’s very easy to think of it as some body as opposed to somebody. I wanted to make them somebodies.”

Ideas come to Beukes, she says, like images appearing on a Polaroid. With The Shining Girls, it all started with a tweet (Beukes is a prolific Tweeter, she has an excellent blog too). “It was a typical bantering exchange on Twitter,” she says. “I just threw out the idea of a time-travelling serial killer. I quickly deleted the tweet because I knew it would be my next book. The image I had was the opening scene, of Harper limping across the grass to approach this little girl – very Time Traveller’s Wife actually, but where that is this incredible love story, this was all about malice.”

The violence in the novel is visceral and graphic. Harper kills his victims with a knife, but he takes his time about it, enjoying his victim’s fear and pain. It’s clear that Beukes has worked in several counterbalances to what is hideous violence perpetrated against women, but, at times, it still left me uneasy. Yes, Kirby exists as a survivor, yes, at the moment of death we are with the women, the victim, as well as their killer. But is it enough?

“It’s about how violence is personal,” Beukes says. “I wanted to make it personal. What I really wanted to get at was what a real serial killer is, which is not an apex predator, a monster who walks among us. They are pathetic, contemptible men. They act out of contempt and we should hold them in the utmost contempt.” Instead, Beukes says, the Hannibal Lecter-style killer holds sway in crime fiction.

“I hate that model. I did a lot of research into serial killers, I listened to a lot of podcasts, particularly on the treadmill – which is the ideal place because it makes you run faster. A lot of them are just broken, broken human beings from the beginning.”

Harper’s story begins in 1931, just after the Great Depression at a time when farmers, such as Harper’s father, are struggling to make ends meet and life is tough. There is a peculiar incident with his brother and a sense of the biting poverty into which he’s been born but there are no easy explanations, no simple deductions. He’s brutalised but we don’t know why. He brutalises but we never really know the reason for that either. Beukes is deliberately ambiguous. For me, Harper is vaguely reminiscent of Anton Chigurh, the terrifying anti-hero of No Country for Old Men, but Beukes doesn’t accept that he is as “cold and calculating” as Chigurh since we’re exposed to his internal processes.

“Harper does struggle, maybe not with what he has to do, but with the feeling that he’s trapped by it, by his compulsion,” she says. “Violence for serial killers often becomes very addictive and that’s why they have to keep upping the ante.”

Beukes is interested in the notions of free will and determinism, Harper is trapped by his fate as is Kirby Mazarachi, who manages to escape hers. Mazarachi is the character who has evoked comparisons with Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, although Beukes isn’t convinced of that either. She argues that Kirby is much less avenging angel than a girl who’s trying to understand and cope with the aftermath of being subjected to a horrifying trauma.

“What I was really interested in was not the horror of the attack but in the real violence. I wanted to think about what it’s like for the survivor to go through something like that. “I mean, we don’t just magically heal. You have bowel problems, the scars hurt and they affect every relationship you have because they’re the first thing that people see about you. I think fundamentally that’s what this book is about – how do you live with that? And how do you come through?”

• The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is published by HarperCollins, £12.99. Beukes will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August