Cape Town-based writer Lauren Beukes won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award for her novel Zoo City. Her new novel, The Shining Girls, is receiving rave reviews and is set to make best-seller lists around the world. Marcus Low talked to her about her writing and about the links between speculative fiction and real-world social issues.
At the age of 36, Lauren Beukes is poised to make it very big with her third novel, The Shining Girls. Not long after its UK release it is already on the Sunday Times UK's top ten list of fiction best-sellers - and bids are streaming in for the film rights.
Harper is a time-travelling serial killer from 1930s Chicago. With the help of a Stephen King-like house that serves as a time portal, he travels forward in time to stalk and murder the 'shining girls' of the title. One of these girls, the feisty Kirby Mazrachi, survives Harper's attempt on her life and sets out to track down the almost untraceable killer. The novel proceeds at breakneck speed, switching between Kirby's and Harper's perspectives with sequences about some of the other shining girls spliced in between.
Though fundamentally a crime novel, The Shining Girls is also about how female potential is repressed. The victims are all women with something special - often they are ahead of their time, taking care of families on their own, or pushing the boundaries of what a woman can do in a particular place and time in history. Kirby's insistence on getting to the bottom of what's going on ends up being both a rollicking yarn and a statement about opposing injustice and suppression.
If all that seems a bit abstract, Beukes is clear about the relationship between her fiction and the real world. "Being a journalist, being exposed to the world, to social injustice, to intolerance, growing up here, under apartheid, benefitting from that, has all shaped who I am and what my passions are and of course that's going to come through in my writing." She also speaks of how many people, especially in Cape Town, still live insular lives. Journalism helped her break out of this insularity by making her go places she wouldn't have otherwise - like interviewing homeless sex workers or electricity cable thieves for magazines like Colors.
Beukes has also witnessed the failure of justice. "My domestic worker's 23-year-old daughter was attacked by her boyfriend, who stabbed her and poured boiling water over her head and locked her in his shack for five days and just walked away. After five days, the neighbours called the police, who broke down the door, but she died four months later from her wounds."
Beukes tried to help the family bring assault and murder charges against the boyfriend, but she says the police hadn't bothered to interview anyone except the victim. "The prosecutor was furious at the level of police bungling, but told me he had to throw the case out," she says. "I got the investigation re-opened through my contacts in the media (and because I'm middle class and know my rights and I have a voice) but the family couldn't bear to go through all of that again. So he's free, still out there. We saw him with his new 19-year-old girlfriend in the court, smug and strutting that he'd got off scot-free."
Beukes herself makes the link between her difficulty letting go of this case and Kirby's insistence on not letting go of her search for Harper. "It's hard to get justice in the real world. It's possible in fiction," she says.
Her previous novel, Zoo City, arguably draws even more strongly on real-world experience. She tells of visiting the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg and seeing the overcrowded conditions in which refugees were living. "People were sick, desperate, there were babies - conceived through rape at the border - being washed in buckets, sleeping on bits of cardboard if they were lucky - all the horror of a refugee camp condensed into one building." Experiences like these are overwhelming and difficult to write about. For her, the answer was to explore it through the lens of one person's story in this case that of Benoit, the Congolese refugee love interest of Zoo City's protagonist, Zinzi December.
The time travel in The Shining Girls and the science fiction and fantasy elements of her previous novels also serve as gateways into difficult issues. Beukes argues that these narrative devices can function as refractive lenses, "a way to lure readers in". Her argument is that people might not be willing to read about violence against women or the experiences of foreign nationals, but they may be willing to read a crime or fantasy novel that deals with such issues indirectly.
And Beukes seems in no doubt about wanting to write books that people want to read. "Fiction is about telling a good story first and foremost," she says. "But of course everything I'm interested in or angry about leaks into my writing, from art to violence against women. It's a way of exploring issues in a way that's engaging, that draws you in, that creates empathy, because you're living in the story rather than reading a set of facts or someone's opinion."
Beukes doesn't pull her punches, however; some critics have described the murder scenes in The Shining Girls as shocking and gratuitous. Beukes argues that the violence should be shocking, but that with the exception of one scene, most of the attacks hinge on only one detail and take up no more than a paragraph. Another reason why the violence may feel more upsetting here is that the victims are not unfamiliar to us. Whereas other crime novels often only present one corpse after another, Beukes makes us sympathise with the various shining girls before they are murdered.
Beukes did intensive research, interviewing a police detective in Chicago (who showed her through old evidence boxes), a music journalist, and sports reporters. She also visited locations mentioned in the book. The result is a setting that is believable and dialogue that rings true. She makes particularly good use of the evidence boxes, which become a symbol of how little the dead leave behind and how hard justice is to come by.
Early on in our interview Beukes talks about how almost all we have of Anene Booysen, who was brutally raped and murdered earlier this year in Bredasdorp, is a single photograph. It is a detail that she seems to find deeply unsettling. Like Kirby though, she refuses to accept that this is simply the way things are - and if anything, it is that determination that shines through in her writing.
Marcus Low is the editor of the Treatment Action Campaign's Equal Treatment magazine, as well as NSP Review, a joint TAC/SECTION27 publication. You can follow him on Twitter @marcuslowx