BOOK REVIEW: The Shining Girls

A time-traveling serial killer is impossible to trace – until one of his victims survives.

In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens on to other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women, burning with potential. He stalks them through their lives across different eras, leaving anachronistic clues on their bodies, until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and starts hunting him back.

The Shining Girls by award-winning South African author, Lauren Beukes, is part dark supernatural thriller, part crime novel, part coming-of-age story, part time travel story, part historical fiction and part social commentary with a feminist bent. With so many angles to the narrative it could easily have become a tangled mess, yet Beukes pulls it off with class and style.

Set in Chicago, each of the historic periods reads authentically (though I am no expert) and it was refreshing to read the nuances in the voices of each of the POV characters (and there are a lot of them) based not just on personality but on the decade in question. Beukes has definitely not taken the easy way out.

The time travel (I’m calling it time shifting) rules are set early and as far as I can determine, the narrative abides by the rules (bending them slightly in terms of allowing Kirby and Mal entry to the house when they break in, by virtue of them possessing something from the house). The non-linear narrative of the time shifting stories occur between the linear stories of Harper in 1931/2 and Kirby in 1992. Like all the best time bending stories, you learn pieces of the plot out of time and without context allowing a slow piecing together of the larger narrative and those delicious a-ha moments when those non-context bits finally fall into place.

Kirby (the only of Harper’s girls to survive) is a protagonist with sass and you are with her each step of the way, desperately wanting her to find Harper so she’ll have vengeance and closure for her attack. It looks impossible, but slowly (partly through her own tenacity and partly through tightly-wound Harper coming apart at the seams) it looks achievable. I know there are others who have not enjoyed her bad-arse, punk attitude, but if the world spits in your face, you can either hide or go it head on. Kirby opts for the latter. Her hard-shelled, rebellious early 20’s self is consistent with the slightly detached, non-nonsense child we are introduced to early in the novel.

Dan (a burned out and jaded homicide journo-turned sportscaster) has the right amount of initial ambivalence toward Kirby as his intern and then pathos as her true mission is revealed. I have to agree with others that the romantic subplot woven into Dan’s character and the hapless knight in shining armour didn’t add anything. Beukes almost laughs at herself when Kirby re-asserts at the show down with Harper that Dan is Robin to her Batman. And while Dan might be in love with Kirby, there is a definite feel throughout that Kirby enjoys the off-beat companionship and perhaps a little flirtation but it’s an amorous relationship is not where she wants it to head. She is focused on the end goal and he is initially her meal ticket, then confidente and later partner-in-crime. Even the hardest and most determined protagonist needs someone to have their back in the 11th hour.

And then there is Harper, the time-shifting serial killer, terrifying in his cold-calculated stalking, the charismatic grooming of the young girls and sadistic dispatching of their older selves. His initial confusion in his changed circumstances helps to ground the reader in the weirdness of the house he happens upon while escaping from Hooverville vigilantes. The later awe, then fear of the plan laid out for him, gives us a sense of the inevitability of where he finds himself, both as a passive recipient ‘of the plan’ and as the active participant of ‘of murderer’. He’s the best type of antagonist because Beukes gives the reader a sense of Harper’s humanity as he attempts to court Nurse Etta. Despite his sociopathic drive, he still has a need for human understanding and contact, echoed again in his short-lived desire for Alice.

Being drawn into the worlds of each of the victims and their slaughter is perhaps the most horrific element of the book. We know from the list of names on the back cover who the girls are. At the first point of contact with each of them we know none of them will walk away with their lives as we are drawn into their worlds: their relationships, careers, hopes, pain and dreams. This makes each shining girl a well rounded character and amplifies the senseless violence of their deaths. (Beukes doesn’t hold back on the grisly details either.)

Each of the shining girls dies in their own time, but there is a sickening anticipation in the reader as Beukes kills some off in the chapter where we first meet them and others  chapters later. The chaos of the reveal echoing Harper’s killing spree.

The story of Alice is perhaps the most disturbing of all, as the only one of Harper’s girls who waits with passionate intensity for his return. Harper, the man who kissed her with wild abandon when she was sacked from her job as a dancing girl in the carnival and then disappeared telling her he would be back. Alice waits for him to swan back into her life and save her. As the only girl with any agency in her death, she is perhaps the most closely aligned with Kirby and why she resonated with me beyond her death in a way the other women didn’t.

While ‘the shining’ is never articulated by Beukes (and this seems to have upset some readers–though it appears as ‘potential’ on some edition’s blurb and not on others?) it is there, woven intimately in the lives of each of women. They are all living outside the acceptable boundaries of society as dictated by the decade they’re in. They contain an inner fire that allows them to thumb their noses at societal expectations; to confront with verve and determination the discrimination and hurdles thrown up by their gender and complicated by race, career, sexual and political preferences. In some cases it is a personal choice, other times it is by luck (good and bad) of circumstances. It’s not just a knife blade that can extinguish the shining. It is not a certainty for the future as we see when Harper’s arrogance leads him to tamper with Catherine’s understanding of her life.  While Catherine expires as the other shining girls do, it would seem she has been dead for years and Harper disappointed by this, becomes disillusioned and looses confidence in himself; he has undermined himself with the ego of his God complex.

The outstanding ensemble of characters is topped off by well-rounded secondary characters from Indian-goth Chet, one of the newspaper’s librarians to Rachel, the barely present mother surrounded by her own ineptitude and broken dreams as a woman, mother and artist. Then there is Kirby’s high school love, Fred Turner, who is so off the mark when they meet up again, that the car scene is beyond cringe-worthy. All are absolutely believable and add to the overall tapestry.

The only character I wondered about was Mal, the homeless addict, whose interest is piqued by the odd comings and goings of Harper from the condemned building in Mel’s neighbourhood. While Mal ramps up Harper’s sense of paranoia by stealing from the house, the number of pages devoted to Mal seem superfluous to the overall narrative in what was such a strong collection of characters who all had something real to add to the momentum of the story.

And the house. (It appears I have a penchant for creepy houses.) The house is character, tech and paradox. The true nature of its existence revealed beautifully at the conclusion (it had me thinking of the Elyora Homestead). The paradox is circular, and is thus self-serving, but Beukes does a brilliant job of justifying it, filling in all the holes as she goes. The post script ties up the narrative perfectly, allowing the ends of the circle to fuse together in a truly satisfying manner.

The Shining Girls is a complex, gruesome, slow burn of a novel that achieves what it set out to do without taking the easy way out.

Four and a half radium-glow butterfly wings

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