I first heard about The Shining Girls from the Big Idea feature on John Scalzi’s blog, and was immediately drawn to the aspects of the story that attracted the author, Lauren Beukes. Sometimes that’s enough for me, finding out what interests a person. The way they’re going to take the story. The premise was also pretty unique. The Shining Girls is a story of a time traveling serial killer being tracked by the one victim that got away. It’s a solid idea, bringing to mind images of the first episode of the relaunched Doctor Who, except the mysterious figure in all those historical documents is a cold blooded killer instead of the timey-wimey dandy we all know and love. I also appreciated what Beukes said in her article about the violence, her focus straying away from, but not avoiding, the killer (who usually holds our attention) to include the lives of the victims. We’re so used to the detective story, the serial killer story (both traditionally male narratives) that we tend to disregard the story of the victim (predominantly female) except as motivation for the detective. Dead girls are something that gets the story rolling. They’re not the story itself. The Shining Girls redresses that.
So I picked it up. Took a look at the praise on the back cover and read a quote from Matt Haig that compared The Shining Girls to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Which was great news for me. I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife, and keeping that in mind while reading I saw where those parallels could be drawn. Before I go into my thoughts about the story (which will also include spoilers for Niffenegger’s novel), I want to say that The Shining Girls is pretty damn good. The characters are solid and well drawn. Beuke has definite skill for the short form of chapters, as sometimes this is all one of victims gets before she is dispatched. In five to ten pages, Beuke manages to cram in a life. Hopes and dreams and the guttering pain of it all being snatched away. Not an easy feat. I found slight pacing problems in the middle but all of that came together in a page turning third act. I’ll go a long way for a solid ending, and The Shining Girls certainly delivers that. The violence is properly violent, so know that going in if that’s something you avoid. If that’s not a problem then I’d definitely recommend it. There’s enough going on here that it’s worth the walk.
Recommendation aside, here are some more structural thoughts on the book (spoilers):
1) While Beuke’s strength lies in the short form of chapters, I didn’t find the same sort of skill played out across the whole arc of the novel. It’s a tricky thing, though, and with so many character perspectives and jumps in time, I’m not sure how you’d accomplish that. Each chapter in The Shining Girls takes place from a different perspective, while focusing primarily on Harper, the killer, and his surviving victim, Kirby. The other chapters are dedicated to Kirby’s mentor, Dan, and the other ‘shining girls’ that Harper is after. While yes, these chapters do allow us a much needed glimpse into the lives of the victims, it’s hard to keep the narrative momentum going with all the interruptions.
I kept finding myself thinking about The Time Traveler’s Wife and how that was structured. In a similar way, it goes back and forth on perspective, showing the different sides of the relationship in an out-of-order chronology. But I never felt the narrative lose steam in the same way I did with The Shining Girls, perhaps because the arc of the story was their relationship. How they came together and how they inevitably came apart. Despite the hops through time, we were reading their relationship in a linear way. The Shining Girls has some of this in that there’s a murder attempt followed by a detective story that culminates in a confrontation, but it kept losing me. The drive of the mystery kept getting interrupted. I couldn’t keep the dates straight. As reference points go, they were just numbers, whereas in The Time Traveller’s Wife the reference points were places and specific moments. The museum, the accident that took his mother, the place he worked, the place they met. I don’t need the year when I know how old they were, etc.
All of this said, I’m not sure what I could suggest to fix this problem that I have with the main arc other than perhaps to reverse the order of how the characters appear. Harper appears first in the book and seems to take up more real estate than Kirby throughout. If this is a story about Kirby’s survival and her solving the mystery, would it work better if there was a lot less Harper? What if we get the brutality of the attack and then go back and forth between all the ‘shining girls’? What if Harper doesn’t get his own chapters? What would that change? Would that make him more terrifying? I kind of think it would.
2) Harper travels through time after finding the key to The House. The House can transport him anywhere in a 60 year range. It also has a room with all the artifacts that lead him to the girls he has to kill. There’s some confusion about who is pushing who that’s never resolved. Is the House actually Harper? They’re connected, but how? I kept wanting rules to the time travel, a basic framework that Harper figures out through using it, but it never manifested. Something in line of the inscape explanations Joe Hill gives for his characters in NOS4A2. His motivations for traveling through time and murdering these girls is fairly amorphous. He’s driven by compulsion, but it’s vague. Which is fine if he draws closer and closer to understanding over the course of the novel, but he doesn’t. He’s trapped within a system that he can’t explain, it seems, and I found that ultimately unsatisfying.
There’s a lot to like in The Shining Girls. Time travel stories are difficult at the best of times. There was one moment towards the end of the book where Kirby’s mother mentions in the same breath that Kirby should be looking for her father’s identity instead of her killer’s that had me terrified we were going down that well worn path. Thankfully, Beuke’s never does anything so predictable. The Shining Girls is a solid read that is very much it’s own story instead of a rehash of something you’ve already read. If you haven’t already, give it a go.