I can’t quite believe, after so many months of wanting to get my hands on ‘The Shining Girls’, that I’ve finally read it. It’s been experienced. I can never experience it again. Time’s sort of funny like that, isn’t it? It only goes one way.
Unless you’re Harper Curtis, that is.
‘The Shining Girls’ has one of the best central ideas I’ve ever heard of – a serial killer who can travel through time, meaning that his crimes are pretty much impossible to connect to one another. In other words, he is untraceable, unstoppable and terrifying. Harper Curtis is this serial killer, a man who has been psychopathic from childhood (a chapter detailing his role in an accident involving his older brother, a truck and an unpulled handbrake was, to me, one of the most chilling episodes in the entire novel – and Harper was only eleven at that time.)
Early in the book, we see him gain access to a mysterious House, one with eerie capability; he comes across the key to this House through committing an act of violence, and that same violence powers the House. At various junctures in the book, when characters peer in the windows, the House looks like a rundown flophouse, ransacked and ramshackle and unfit for human habitation. But when Curtis enters (along with several other characters, who seem to be able to ‘see’ the House properly), it becomes a well-appointed, attractive place with fixtures and fittings from Chicago in the 1930s. When he opens the front door again, Curtis steps out into an entirely different reality, years in the future. The time-travel has sensible limits on it; Curtis is always in Chicago, and he cannot seem to travel to any point earlier than 1929 or later than 1993, but he always has one thing on his mind – the destruction of the Shining Girls.
And who are the Shining Girls? They are young women who burn and sparkle with potential. They are dancers, performers, scientists, journalists, architects, welders, wives, widows, maidens, mothers… all manner of womanhood is here. For reasons we are never truly privy to, these girls must die, and their potential – their shine – must be quenched.
Curtis has been murdering women since the 1930s, taking a token from each woman and leaving it on the body of another victim. When he first arrived in the House, he saw a list of names scrawled on a wall, in his own handwriting, and he knew what he was going to do – in a way, because he had already done it. His actions were inevitable. We encounter him first in 1974, when he meets the six-year-old Kirby Mazrachi, who we know is one of the Shining Girls. The darkness within Curtis as he interacts with the innocent Kirby is like a miasma around him, like a stench emanating from him. I’ve never been so repulsed by a character, and I mean that as a compliment to Lauren Beukes’ writing. We see him give Kirby a plastic horse, a toy which becomes vital to her story at the end of the book, and we know he will be back at some point in her future.
Kirby meets Curtis again in 1989, when he attempts to murder her. Out of all his victims, she is the only one to survive – and, at that, only by pure chance. For a long time Curtis thinks he has been successful in killing her, but when he realises that she survived, he becomes determined to finish what he started.
I wanted to love this novel. It’s exactly the kind of thing I enjoy – time travel, compelling characters (particularly compelling female characters), an excellent core concept, a bit of mystery, psychological intrigue, crime – but I can’t say that I did. I really, really liked it, and I would recommend it, but… I’m not sure. There was something missing, for me, at the end, perhaps as a consequence of having spent so many months looking forward to reading it. Some readers were disappointed by the fact that a lot of the mystery at the core of Curtis’ time travelling ability is left unexplained, but that didn’t bother me at all. I was perfectly willing to accept that this House (it deserves the initial capital, believe me) was able to transport its occupants to any point in its own timeline, and I was perfectly willing to accept that it would draw a man like Harper Curtis to itself in order to carry out the murders it felt were necessary. I loved the concept of the ‘shine’, the potential for greatness that existed within each of the victims, even though they were divided by time, race, sexuality, ability and age; I loved every character (from the point of view of how well they were created, that is, not an actual ‘love’ of their personalities.) I can see why some readers would find it hard to suspend their disbelief, but it didn’t cause any issues for me. I loved how Beukes handled her time-travel. Still, having said all that, something about the ending felt flat.
I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away pertinent details, because this is the sort of book you really don’t want to spoil for other readers. I will say this much: I read it all in one sitting, I found it hard to put to one side, and Lauren Beukes is a massively talented writer. The story is gripping, though a little hard to keep straight in your head due to the shifting, hopping timelines, and the crime sections are gruesome but extremely compelling. The investigation Kirby launches against the man who almost murdered her is a bit so-so, but the reader has to remember that this part of the book is set in the early 1990s when investigation techniques were not what they are now (I’ve read several reviews of this book which slam her weak investigation into her attacker – but it was a pre-internet age, we can’t forget), and I really enjoyed reading about the lives of the Shining Girls, each of them interesting enough for a novel in their own right.
The book is gory, with scenes of extreme and misogynistic violence, and I do think readers need to be aware of that. It’s not an easy book to read, but it’s a powerful and important book, and as such I would recommend it. The statement Beukes is making – that the world itself conspires, at times, to snuff out the light of its Shining Girls – is one that needs to be heard and heeded.
Happy weekend, y’all. Happy reading!