I decided to read The Shining Girls, which was published in June of 2013, because of a recommendation from Joe Hill on Twitter. Lauren Beukes was an unfamiliar name, but I was willing to take a chance based on the recommendation and a $2.99 sale on Amazon.
The novel follows a time traveling serial killer and, eventually, one of his unsuccessful victims. If that seems like a confusing summary, it’s because it is. It was hard to wrap my head around the premise of the story at first, but I quickly fell into the inventive storytelling it created.
Harper Curtis finds a house that takes him to other times. That alone would make for an interesting story, but things get truly wicked when the house offers up a way to find smart, “shining” girls for Harper to kill. The house is home to objects that lead Harper to the times and places where the girls will be, sometimes to give them the object and other times to kill them in various depraved ways.
Kirby Mazrachi is the recipient of one of the early gifts, a toy pony, but it’s obvious from the beginning that the relationship between Harper and Kirby is going to be a difficult one. Most relationships, if you can even call them that, between killer and victim probably are, but theirs is fraught with more complication and danger than most.
When Harper and Kirby come to the point where their relationship is going to end — very poorly for one, as you might imagine — things don’t go as Harper planned. Kirby lives, and later makes it her mission to find her attacker to keep him from hurting other girls like her.
The characterizations of other victims are at once some of the best and worst parts of the story. For some victims I felt invested and, eventually, dismayed at the first-person narration of the grisly end to their lives, but at other points in the story the murders didn’t cause any particular reaction. Some of this dissonance can no doubt be attributed to a fault of Beukes and the choices she made while writing. At the end of the story, however, I’m convinced my dissimilar reactions had more to do with the disjointed timeline and the constraints it forced on Beukes.
For the most part new chapters meant a jump to a new place and time in the story. The chapter title tells the perspective from which it will be told with the character name and the date, but that method of understanding the storyline is very detached from the way we’re accustomed to. Unfortunately I came to see it as both a boon and a hindrance to my enjoyment of The Shining Girls. As my 8 out of 10 rating shows, it was mostly a boon because of Beukes’ masterful choices and understanding of the story, but I had trouble staying in and understanding the timeline properly at various points in my reading.
The work is difficult to define when it comes to genre — part science fiction, part crime, part horror — and it was even more difficult to decide my overall opinion of the story and its telling during the reading. I’m not one to form impressions from just a few chapters and rarely stop reading because of a poor fit for my tastes. I was almost halfway through The Shining Girls before I decided to keep reading, and my opinion of the book changed drastically from beginning to end. This isn’t to say you should stick with the story if it doesn’t grab you at first. I’m glad I did, but I think the unusual timeline is to blame for my reaction again.
If you haven’t read The Shining Girls and you’re looking for an inventive, well-told, and heart-pounding (especially toward the end) story then I recommend you pick up this book. You might find some unaccustomed difficulty with the story and its telling. In the end it was worth it for me, and I suspect the same will be true for most readers with an open mind and love of great stories.
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