The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes
The Shining Girls Cover

The Shining Girls


This review first appeared on the SFF Book Review.

I've wanted to read Lauren Beukes for a while now but I always thought I'd start with Zoo City, whose description somehow spoke to me the most. Then I listened to the book review and interview with the author on Speculate! and the decision was made. "Time travelling serial killer" sounded too good to be left on the TBR.

The girl who wouldn't die, hunting a killer who shouldn't exist…A terrifying and original serial-killer thriller from award-winning author, Lauren Beukes. 'If you've got a Gone Girl-shaped hole in your life, try this' Evening Standard "It's not my fault. It's yours. You shouldn't shine. You shouldn't make me do this." Chicago 1931. Harper Curtis, a violent drifter, stumbles on a house with a secret as shocking as his own twisted nature – it opens onto other times. He uses it to stalk his carefully chosen 'shining girls' through the decades – and cut the spark out of them. He's the perfect killer. Unstoppable. Untraceable. He thinks…Chicago, 1992. They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Tell that to Kirby Mazrachi, whose life was shattered after a brutal attempt to murder her. Still struggling to find her attacker, her only ally is Dan, an ex-homicide reporter who covered her case and now might be falling in love with her. As Kirby investigates, she finds the other girls – the ones who didn't make it. The evidence is… impossible. But for a girl who should be dead, impossible doesn't mean it didn't happen…

This book shows beautifully that you can get me to read anything if you just promise me the tiniest speculative fiction element. The idea of a time travelling serial killer immediately appealed to me (in a I-want-to-read-about-it way only, of course) because we've all seen movies where the police hunt a serial killer. Usually, these killers fit into a psychological profile, killing their later victims more violently than the first ones, and so on. But Harper travels randomly through time, so nothing about him makes sense to the modern police. It is assumed there are several murderers and some of them are even in prison (with only the readers knowing of their innocence).

The story is told alternately from the points of view of Harper, Kirby, the other victims, Dan, and occasionally a random person who gets involved in Kirby's hunt. Being the only girl that survived Harper's attempt to murder her, Kirby carries a lot of scars with her, and not just visible ones. She is almost obsessed with finding her almost-killer and bringing him to justice. After the police didn't really help her, she starts an internship at a newspaper and works her way through old clippings of murders similar to hers. Her boss Dan, who is kind of falling in love with her, was a wonderful (and sane) counterpart to obsessive Kirby and her relationship with Harper.

We follow both Harper and Kirby's storylines in a linear way. However, since Harper disocvered his time-travelling house, he jumps wildly in time, popping up in the 1950's, then again in the 30's, and then in the 80's. Lauren Beukes does an excellent job of bringing each of these time periods to life. When Harper sees a television for the first time, he just stands there and watches ads for half an hour. But his goals are and always will be his Shining Girls, whom he sometimes "visits" when they are still young to tell them he'll come back for them later. Invariably, he returns to kill them when they are in their early twenties.

I have to watch my vocabulary here because saying I enjoyed or liked getting to know Harper's victims just sounds wrong. I loved that the author gave them a life of their own, a backstory with hopes and dreams, and didn't just leave them to be pretty corpses on a policeman's wall. Of course, as soon as we read a chapter about one of the Shining Girls, we know how it is going to end – which makes it all the more tragic that the girls themselves make plans and think about the future. We know there is no future for them. But, and this made me insanely happy, we get to understand why they are Shining Girls – because each of them shines in their own field, be it science, social work, or art, they are talented, promising young women.

I was also impressed by the diversity and range of characters we get to meet. There is a young black mother, working hard to feed her children, a woman working for an (illegal) abortion clinic, a brilliant young scientist, a dancing girl who painted her body so it would glow in the dark, and of course Kirby with her sharp wit and lovable personality, despite the bitter edge whenever someone talks about her scars.

Any novel about a serial killer will have a certain amount of violence in it. Let me say right away that I didn't feel it was gratuitous! Most of the murders Harper commits aren't described in detail at all. We get the glimpse of a knife slicing through skin, a crumpling body, sometimes only a sensation of pain and then darkness. In other cases, we do learn Harper's preferred mode of killing his victims and, yes, it is gruesome and horrible. But I felt that Lauren Beukes kept it to a minimum and let us know just enough to properly hate Harper.

Apart from the police (or journalist) procedural nature of the book, Kirby's story was interesting on other levels as well. Her relationship to Dan intrigued me, his careful attempts to make the right steps. How do you treat a girl who has been through something that horrible? Dan grew on me very quickly and I was hoping throughout the novel that Kirby would come to see that she had a true friend and ally in him.

All things considered, I am very impressed, not only because I couldn't put the book down, but because in addition to a thriller, I got a glimpse into different periods of the 20th century. The historical aspects, and Kirby's journey, were at least as gripping as the hunt for Harper. Lauren Beukes is an author to watch out for, and I personally can't wait to pick up another of her books.

RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!