There are some books that come along and the premise sounds so different that you want to give them a whirl straight away. That was the case for me with Lauren Beukes, who I have been meaning to read for ages, when I heard the premise of ‘The Shining Girls’. I have read many a book about a serial killer and I have read a few books about time travellers but never have these two things merged (well not that spring to mind) before until this book…
Harper Curtis is a drifter and no-good-doer in Chicago during the depression of the late 1920’s. After having caused a particularly horrific act of violence, he is on the run from what he knows will be an attack of revenge when upon he is drawn to ‘the House’.
From the outside this house seems like a dump, yet inside not only does Harper find a house much more luxurious than he expected but the house can also transport him through time. Now most people with a criminal personality might think ‘how much money can I make out of this’ yet Harper being a complete psychopath decides to travel through time killing ‘shining girls’ throughout the ages. He can get his kicks and get away with it.
Yet on one occasion, in the 1980’s, Harper gets more than he bargained for when he tries to kill Kirby Mazrachi who is out walking her dog. She survives and she is borderline obsessed about finding out who her killer is, leading her to working for a newspaper with Dan who covered her case as it went cold. As Kirby tries to discover more Harper discovers that Kirby got away and that was never in his plans and so begins a time travelling and twisty game of cat and mouse.
I did have a few issues with this novel which I want to get out of the way before I look at the great things about the novel. Firstly, ‘the House’. I wanted a reason why this house did what it did, yet Beukes doesn’t give it one. The only way I could try and answer the way was to think along the lines of a really dark episode of Doctor Who where Jack the Ripper somehow nicks off with the Tardis and the horror that could unfold from that. I love Doctor Who, why is a Police Box a time machine? Well, it just is – though I may get some Doctor Who fans putting me right as there may be an actual reason for this. Some people would say, and I do this on occasion, ‘there doesn’t need to be a why, its fiction so it just is’. I often take that line myself, in fact I did with Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ yet unlike with ‘The Shining Girls’ I never had to question it whereas Beukes occasionally lost me and I was outside the book again questioning it rather than being lost in it. Another example of this was with the ‘shining girls’ themselves.
As I understood it what Beukes was trying to do, and admirably so, with this novel was look at women’s roles and rights throughout the 20th Century. From club performers to female architects to women fighting for other women to have the right ‘to choose’ we get a real mixture of victims. The problem was, with the exception of Kirby who got away and Alice (a transsexual, whose story moved me the most), we got their back story yet we never got a glimpse of what exceptional things they could have done which I think would have added a much more emotional impact and underline what seemed to be Beukes motivation.
I think Beukes could have done this easily as she proved, and this leads to one of the parts of the book that bowled me over and really moved me, with the murder of Julia Madrigal when she highlighted the ramifications of what happens to family and friends after someone’s murder…
“Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she relocates into the spare room. Eventually, he stops hiding her bottles. When her liver seizes up twenty years later, he sits next to her in a Winnipeg hospital and strokes her hand and narrates recipes he’s memorized like scientific formula because there is nothing else to say.
Her sister moves as far away as she can, and keeps moving, first across the state, then across country, then overseas to become an au pair in Portugal. She is not a very good au pair. She doesn’t bond with the children. She is too terrified that something might happen to them.”
Yet I felt because Beukes had so much going on in the book and so many places to take it (and I have seen pictures of the murder wall she created to make it all run smoothly) utter gems like this and indeed Alice’s story suffered by being hidden amongst all the high concept thrills, and maybe one too many victims. On occasion there was a lot of show and not enough tell post show if that makes sense.
However I did ponder, as I was scratching away at the surface of the book, if I was demanding too much of ‘The Shining Girls’ after all it is a bloody (pun not intended) good thriller and you cannot help but be pulled into the chase of Kirby for her killer and her killer for Kirby. Harper is also an absolutely vile and delightfully hateable villain. The fact he goes and leaves something from one victim on another and that he will visit his victims when they are children or young adults letting them know he will come back is properly creepy and psychotic, which makes from gripping reading.
“Here we go. Round and round, like your ferris wheel. I’ll see you when you’re all grown-up. Look out for me, OK, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.”
You might be surprised, after some of my criticisms above, to hear me say that I would recommend ‘The Shining Girls’ as a good read. But it is. With this book you will be taken on a high octane ride through the twentieth century with several unexpected twists along the way and escape from the world, especially as the autumn nights draw in. I just wish with the time travel element Beukes had written about the victim’s possible futures, and what could have been, as well as their pasts. That for me would have made what was for me a really gripping thriller into what could have been one of my favourite books of the year.
Who else has read ‘The Shining Girls’ and what did you think? If you have read it what did you make of ‘the House’ and also the ‘shining girls’ themselves as plot devices? Which other books of Beukes have you read and which should I turn to next, as I do want to read more of her books. Also, have any of you read another time travelling murder mystery, they are like buses – you don’t hear of any and then whoosh her come a few, AK Benedict’s ‘The Beauty of Murder’ as I now fancy giving that a whirl.