Today, Lauren Beukes is one of South Africa’s leading lights in the world of fiction writing. Today, she is also internationally acclaimed. After completing my experience of her 2013 debut as a crime fiction writer of note, I was tempted to exclaim;
“Move over, Margie Orford, move over Lynda la Plante, here is the new Queen of Crime Fiction.”
Now, having read all three mistresses’ works, I desist for now. If reviews of Beukes’ latest crime thriller Broken Monsters are anything to go by and if she persists with her artistic nuancing of this genre with her previous practice of speculative fiction, then she is well on her way to claiming that mantle.
It was exhilarating walking past my local Wordsworth Bookstore, seeing Beukes’ latest novel displayed prominently alongside that of Afrikaans crime fiction writer, Deon Meyer.
Her recent thriller, The Shining Girls, still sells well in South Africa and is making a modest impression in the challenging American markets.
Lauren Beukes made her mark with her first two novels, Moxyland and Zoo City. She From these works she made her mark as an innovative and original writer of speculative fiction, but is unfairly compared with Canada’s literary luminary, Margaret Atwood, who is recognised as contributing towards the popularisation of this genre as early as the nineteen-seventies.
Beukes is also skilled a documentary film producer and comic book writer. Glitterboys & Ganglands touched my heart strings immediately. It is an intimate showcase of an unconventional beauty pageant set in the so-called Pink Belt of Cape Town. The beauty pageant is contested between transsexuals and a soon to be transgendered person who was unfairly judged.
Kayden van Eden, already a winner of many “straight female pageants”, was preparing for that operation and managed to maintain her dignity throughout. While sharing her challenges and ambitions, she also showed off her athleticism as a trapeze artiste. While the documentary shows the viewer what happens behind the scenes of a gay pageant, it also romanticises this sub-culture with care.
I saw this unique woman plying her trade across the beauty counter of a well-known department store in the Cape Town City Bowl some years ago, but did not have the courage to converse with her. She no longer works there. Unique, she was beautiful. Beukes’ documentary still fresh in my mind, I recognised Kaylen immediately.
Beukes’ touching documentary enters the Cape Flats homes of the pageant’s leading contenders as they prepare for their big day. You are impressed with the contestants’ bravery against the challenges of prejudice and determination to produce beauty queens to match their conventional equals. But their talent for theatre and entertainment convinces you that their straight peers would be no match for them.
Moxyland, as a work of speculative fiction, resembles Atwood’s own work. But such similarities disappear when the narrative layers and compelling characterisations are carefully probed. It is located somewhere in South Africa’s post-democracy, rapidly reeling towards wholesale cultural anarchy. Zoo City continues with the dystopic theme. The narrative style and dialogue is tailor-made as a film screenplay, much like South African Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee’s, short, concise prose is chiselled into the page. However, it is the characters’ dialogue that shines through in its originality.
The Shining Girls caught the eye of Hollywood producer and actor, Leonardo diCaprio. A Hollywood blockbuster in the making for South Africa’s talented writer?
The original text is a well-worked combination of speculative and detective fiction.
The dialogue is straight to the point, but with elements of femininity, is sensitive in comparison to Elmore Leonard’s characters. Like Scotland’s Ian Rankin, narrative details are never overworked. It does not have the hard-core elements of South Africa’s leading crime fiction writer, Deon Meyer (who generously praised Beukes’ work in the book’s blurb). Kirby is refreshingly ambiguous and original as the story’s female protagonist. There are elements of the tomboy and androgyny in the character which adds to the mystery and suspense. As a character with flaws, she is not allowed to dominate the story while she pursues the morbidly male villain, Harper.
This time-travelling pursuit has subtle elements of Edgar Allan Poe’s mastering of the macabre.
Having closely followed the works of Margaret Atwood, it is pleasing to see originality in Beukes’ writing when it juxtaposes speculative and crime genres.
Earlier, Lauren Beukes received the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award for Zoo City.
Temporal switching is not easily mastered, and when it fails, both in film and literature, it sometimes distracts or confuses the viewer and reader. But The Shining Girls does not have any flaws here. Short, suspense-filled chapters lead the reader on, gleefully interrupted by different characters, good, bad, or supporting, in different settings and different eras. The story is located in Chicago, journeying from the great depression and the time of Al Capone to Ronald Reagan’s boom and bust years.
Cultural elements are aptly captured. Characters’ preoccupations are accurately aligned with the years in which they are located at any given time.
I will not give away the story as it unfolded before my eyes. Like Beukes, I will leave you to wonder who or what are the Shining Girls, what crimes are being committed and why the story stretches back to depression era Chicago.
If you are challenged by time, your reading of The Shining Girls will pose no obstacles. It can be enjoyed during short interludes from working life, or over one rain-drenched weekend, preferably at night.
Enjoy your reading.
Lauren Beuke’s previous novel, Zoo City, won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke Award. She is currently adapting her novel for the screen.
Glitterboys & Ganglands was adjudged the best LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) film at the San Diego Black Film Festival.
The Shining Girls was published in South Africa by Umuzi, an imprint of Random House-Struik. Its hard-cover version was published in the United States of America by Mulholland Books. It received recognition from South Africa’s Exclusive Books Reader’s Choice Book of the year and WH Smith Richard & Judy BookClub Choice in 2013. It was short-listed by South Africa’s prestigious The Sunday Times Fiction Prize.
It has been optioned by Leonardo diCaprio’s production company, Appian Way.
And Lauren Beukes’ new crime fiction thriller, Broken Monsters, is rising up the best-seller charts.
Kayden van Eeden lives somewhere on the Cape Flats. I have not yet found her again.