Sunday, February 8, 2015

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Published: Mulholland Books, 2013

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is a girl who was never meant to have a future. Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times. 

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He's the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable—until one of his victims survives. Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the
 Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth…”

This is the third book I’ve read by Lauren Beukes, and it is very different from Moxyland and Zoo City. I’m currently in the process of reading her latest book, Broken Monsters.  Also, this is the first of my 2014 Christmas backlog reviews, which I will post in between reviews of books I am currently reading in 2015.  My biggest 2015 resolution is to find a way to keep from getting behind in my reviews like this in the future!

My Thoughts:

The Shining Girls fits a very different collection of genres than either of Beukes’s first two novels, and one that happens to fall a little outside my usual tastes.  From my perspective, The Shining Girls fits mostly into horror and thriller categories, and I think that knowing this helps one to calibrate expectations.  For instance, one shouldn’t expect for a detailed explanation of the time-traveling house and the shining girls to be a major part of the story. I’m not saying there are no answers at all, but those that exist lean more towards the style of horror.  More than their causes, the supernatural elements are important for their effects on the story. For instance, the time-travel allowed for a look at Chicago throughout the decades, which I found pretty interesting (I’ve only been to the city a few times). It also made Harper a difficult killer to catch, as he darted through history to attack women of great potential.

For me, the shining girls were the most compelling part of the book.  Each of the victims lived in a different time, and was working to overcome or defy different societal problems.  I found it incredibly sad to know from the beginning that they would not survive to fulfill their potential. The lone survivor, Kirby, is the main viewpoint character in her hunt for Harper.  Though she hits some of the typical buttons for a spunky heroine with a tragic past, I appreciated that she was not particularly angsty.  She doesn’t wallow in self-pity, but is instead driven to the search for her would-be killer in order to help gain some closure over what was done to her. I felt that she was a very easy character to like, and I hoped that her search would bring her what she needed in order to heal.

Though the plot is non-linear in time, beyond the horror elements it is the familiar tale of a survivor whose life revolves around her search for her would-be killer.  Everything proceeds more or less as expected, but there were a few things I especially liked about Beukes’s take on this kind of story.  For instance, Harper Curtis, the murderer, was not romanticized in the least.  He was a disgusting, mean-spirited, violent man, and I found myself wishing he had far fewer viewpoint chapters.  However, when he did murder a young woman, the scene was given from her perspective. The reader was clearly meant to identify with the pain, shock and fear of these girls, and to see them as people. On the other hand, there was very little time to get to know each victim, and it was difficult to read about young woman after young woman being brutally murdered.  I would have liked for the narrative to have spent more time with the shining girls while they were alive, so that the pattern from character introduction to murder would not have seemed to repeat so many times. However, all of this definitely cemented Harper as an irredeemable person, and one who I was eager to see meet his comeuppance.  Though the story was a bit predictable, I still found it entertaining and felt that the ending gave the story a satisfying conclusion.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Shining Girls, as a horror/thriller story set in Chicago, is very different than either of Beukes’s previous novels, and it shows the range of her writing skill.  It is not my favorite of her work, but that is likely due in large part to the fact that the genre and subject matter correspond less closely to my personal interests. I appreciated that the serial killer was not glamorized, and I was particularly drawn to the shining girls, including the survivor and protagonist, Kirby.  I wished there could have been more time spent with the shining girls throughout history, since the repetition of character introduction to brutal murder could get numbing.  Overall, I enjoyed seeing another side of Beukes’s skill as a writer, and I am already reading her next novel, Broken Monsters.

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