Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I've been thinking a lot about rankings lately. Which is odd, because other than my quarterly Trending Ten posts, I spend very little time "ranking" books. I don't use a star rating or 5 point scale on my reviews. I just don't like taking my love of words and turning it into anything more than the most elementary of math. I'll use Goodread's rating system but that's about the long and the short of it. But because of The Shining Girls I'm going to talk about the only criteria that I can come up with that explains what makes a five star book for me.

The Shining Girls is the latest from Lauren Beukes, whose Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel in 2011. While her latest effort doesn't rely so heavily on genre trappings, reading much more like literary fiction, there are plenty of strange goings on in this dreadfully beautiful mash up of thriller, horror, and speculative tropes. Fans of Stephen King, James Patterson, and Audrey Niffenegger will not want to miss Beukes' nuanced and page turning tale of a time-travelling serial killer and the "shining girls" he is drawn to kill.

The Shining Girls starts out by introducing us to both our protagonist, Kirby Mizrachi, and our antagonist, the time-travelling serial killer Harper Curtis. Kirby is a young girl, constructing an imaginary circus with discarded bits of trash when she is approached by Harper who has been drawn to her "shine". After a shudder worthy interaction with Kirby that leaves not one iota of doubt just how dangerous he is, Harper presents her with a gift and promises that he'll come see her again when she's "all grown up". As eerie and dread-inducing as this opening sequences it is, the prose is rife with poetry and imagery and I dare say that most readers will find themselves hooked in just those scant number of pages.

What follows is a bumpy thrill ride as we follow both Harper and Kirby through time, stopping off in time periods as diverse as the 1930's to the early 1990's. Beukes uses this mechanism to great effect, moving forward and backwards in the narrative to sometimes surprising effect. But special effects aside it is the pitch perfect imagery and prose and Beukes' knack for writing characters so real you continue thinking about them long after their story is complete that makes The Shining Girls a must read.

Harper, who starts his story as an unsavory customer in Capone's Chicago, is a man of easy violence and cruelty who finds himself drawn to a mysterious derelict row house. But beneath the apparent decrepitude lurks a sinister force that has chosen Harper for its unknowable ends. The House, as Harper begins to think of it almost immediately, exerts its powerful presence on Harper as he begins to fulfill its deadly purpose as if he were born for the task. You see, Harper doesn't just kill women. He seeks them out as children, takes a memento and tells them that he will return. With the House he is able to return years later, to kill them before vanishing again into another time.

Simultaneously, we follow Kirby who, just as we feared, will become one of Harper's victims. The catch is, unbeknownst to the time skipping killer, she lives and dedicates herself to seeing him brought to justice. Kirby is the real star of the novel, the girl who should have died, but emerges from her ordeal with her quirky offbeat spirit in tact, but tattered around the edges as she struggles to adapt to her new-found status as a grotesque. Beukes manages to keep Kirby likable while managing to deftly balance the need to show that violence always leaves a mark on its victim, no matter how well they may appear to be coping with the aftermath.

This type of layered portrayal is the heart of what makes The Shining Girls so compelling. Each of Harper's shining girls is given her moment, sometimes not encompassing more than a handful of pages. And even though the reader knows that each one will fall to the edge of the killer's knife, Beukes manages to craft such sympathetic and achingly real people in these victims that even the most jaded readers will be hard pressed not to feel a pang when they meet their predetermined ends. And when Kirby, the sole survivor, finally manages to track down Harper after connecting the murders, the ensuing confrontation takes full advantage of the opportunities only a malevolent time traveling house can provide.

I suspect that many genre fans may find the lack of explanations regarding the exact nature and mechanics of the time travel in the novel a reason to criticize, but I feel that was a conscious choice not to bog down the novel in exposition. Others may find the characterization of Harper to be lacking the depth of a Hannibal Lector or even the villain of the month in Patterson's oeuvre. It's true, Harper Curtis doesn't show the depth of character that his victims do, with Beukes choosing to paint him in much broader and more ill-defined strokes, more of a malevolent force than a person. I believe this is intentional, Beukes is well aware of the fascination with evil and chooses not to humanize it. This isn't Harper's story, it's the story of his shining girls. She seems to say that society pays far too much attention to killers when it is the victims that matter.

The Shining Girls is one of the relatively few books that I've given a five-star rating to, despite some obvious flaws. The depth of character and the deft and ordinary magic of Beukes' prose so far out match any quibbles I might have over its flaws that those items no longer even matter. It's not a perfect story, but it's such a well crafted and beautiful one that all but the most critical of readers won't even notice.


  1. I can not wait to read this! every review I've read of it has been glowing. now to get my hands on a copy. . .

  2. Couldn't read this book fast enough. Don't let the time travel issue turn you off of an excellent thriller/murder mystery. One of the best literary villains I've read in a long time, and a teenage heroine to match him. This will absolutely be a adapted to a hollywood film in the near future. Read it.

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