The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is a wonderful, intoxicating read. She takes a murder thriller, and puts a deft spin on it, working in time travel, obsession, and the power of sexuality. Thinking back on the novel, sex plays an increasingly large role in the narrative. All of the victims are sexually strong women, in control of their lives in every way. The one exception is the one woman who no longer “shines,” falling into drug abuse and mediocrity as an artist. She, also, is the least satisfying kill for Harper, the serial killer who jumps around time, killing off women who “shine,” who have a special quality that  lifts them above the rest. They are gifted.

Talking about sex in The Shining Girls, for much of the novel sex and violence are explicitly tied together with the killer. He jerks off to places where he kills his victims, his erections are noted, the release and the energy of the killing passages could be overlaid a bodice ripper, and the songs would be eerily similar. Harper’s violence is tied to his sexuality, taking its place. It’s evidenced further by the only time he considers giving up the serial killer business is when he establishes a physically intimate relationship with a nurse that he considers his equal. What is interesting is that he considers her his equal largely because he sees her as being as cold, deceptive, and manipulative as he is. Their intimacy is less a shared experience than of two experiences running parallel to one another. based on deceit, of the willful playing of expected roles, both seeing the other as being innately false but finding their attraction in this falsehood. It was not surprising when one crossed a line and Harper brutally murdered his lover. though this was also Harper’s most disorganized killing, building towards nothing, no purpose besides reacting against a betrayal he couldn’t abide.  His lover had drugged him and looked into The Room.

The Room is essentially a trophy case that maps out the killings that would make up Harper’s life. It should be noted that Harper’s lover did not react to the room with revulsion. She did not find Harper suddenly terrifying, a monster in human skin. She offered to work with him, to be his accomplice, to be Bonnie to his clyde, holding up the robust futures of young women and taking them for himself.  She was more alike him than he knew, and for a brief moment, before he killed her, it may have been the one frankly honest communication to pass between them.   So why did Harper kill her? Was it the betrayal or was it the loss of power? With his regular killings, power is a key aspect for Harper. Snuffing out these bright lights, taking them for himself, the idea of being in control is  for him quite stimulating. Perhaps this is the true reason he kills her. By drugging him, and slipping into the one room he has forbidden her from, she has done an ultimate act of power taking. The only way for him to regain any of it is to brutally snuff out her light.

It is this loss of power induced rage at the realization that one of his victims, Kirby, has survived that ultimately leads to Harper’s own demise. He gets sloppy. He gets personal. He consistently loses his fights when it gets personal, seemingly unable to deal with anything he can’t detach himself from.

This isn’t to say that sex isn’t intrinsically linked to power for the other characters. For all of the women who shine, sex is powerful for them, as well. however, it is a power they exert over themselves and weave into their lives rather than a power that is forced over others. One woman is a lesbian at a time and place where lesbianism wouldn’t be the most popular life choice. Another forgoes a lesbian relationship because she knows it isn’t what she ultimately interested in. Another woman is keenly aware of the sexual politics played at her work, and is careful in plotting her course and fending off advances – as well as the repercussions of fending off such advances. And Kirby desires sex, but on her terms, turning down suitors who offend her, holding back when she isn’t sure if another has the same desires.  Sex is a part of their lives, in ways prominent parts, but they are only parts, and they have their place.

As always, here’s the Barnes and Noble link to buy the book.

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