The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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bringing to mind images of the first episode of the relaunched Doctor Who, except the mysterious figure in all those historical documents is a cold blooded killer instead of the timey-wimey dandy we all know and love.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.

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That Little Asshole Goat

Dear Tessa,

This afternoon I took you to your very first trip to Butterfield Acres, a nearby petting zoo/working farm that I’ve heard friends with children talk about for years but never looked into till last week. This summer I want us to get out more, so I’ve started taking you for full days instead of your usual morning at dayhome and afternoon with me (which you’d usually spend most of the time napping anyway). The aim was for us to go out and have little adventures. Go to the science center, the zoo…Butterfield Acres.

You did not enjoy your first trip to Butterfield Acres, and to be honest, despite all of my high-minded thinking behind taking you I’ve been trying all morning to figure a way out of it. It’s hot out and your overweight dad is not a fan of the heat. A large sweaty man does not a good image around countless children make, even if he has one of his own in tow. And it’s a new place, and occasionally I have problems with new places that I only figure out a few hours before I actually have to show up.

But damn it, I wanted us to go. For you, mostly. Even if you didn’t have a good time, it would be a beginning to build on. A new experience. That has to be good, doesn’t it? The final decision is out on that one, but it was a new experience.

You do not care for farm animals at the moment. I’m sure it’s an age thing, as all the other children – some half a year older than you, others several years older – had no issue. You’d discover them almost by accident walking through the park, realizing sometimes a little too late that you were closer than you’d like. You’d back away very slowly, all the while saying ‘no’ in a very calm, but determined way. Not a ‘No! Get that peacock away from me’. More like a, ‘No, I am not going to engage in this situation right now thank you very much.’

I tried to push the issue a couple of times, picking you up so you could pet the horses (almost wrote horsies there but you just turned your head, buried it into my shoulder and repeated your little ‘no’ mantra. Except for a two incidents, this was your whole first experience with Butterfield Acres. You stayed apart from the larger groups of older kids running by in packs like I’ve seen you do at dayhome. You’re not sure if you want to join in and even less sure about how to do it even if you wanted to. You’re thinking it through, though, that’s for certain.

So these incidents:

The first bad incident is when you were surprised by the miniature horses (that’s little horsies, to you). They were about your height and not moving by the fence so you didn’t notice them until you were really close and they brayed quite loudly. You backed up into a fence filled with turkeys that started to shriek and between a turkey and a little horsie well…there were some tears. I picked you up and we went to go play with some sand and trucks.

The second bad incident was a reoccurring encounter with one of the smaller goats (kids?) walking around the farm. It took a liking to you while you were backing up and away from the flock (?) of sheep panting away in the summer heat. It approached you and you didn’t see it at first, which was probably what added to the shock when you finally turned around and it was right there. You shook your arms as if they were miniature wings that would take you out of the situation and began to run…properly run away in a fashion that resembled someone running away from a madman with a knife. That little asshole goat, who really wasn’t such a bad kid, followed you perplexed, and you continued in your run, pumping your arms like a champ and occasionally throwing a look back to make sure, yes, that little bastard was running (walking, really) you down.

So yeah, tears and a lot of no. Not the greatest first trip. I was a little dismayed until on the way back when we were passing the infamous horsie/turkey combo  I heard a woman talking on her cellphone while her daughter was petting an emu. The woman was telling the person on the other end that this time was better than six months ago, that it was like two different kids. And you know what, that’s probably what it’s going to be like with you.
Regardless, we’re going to keep going on these day trips this summer. They should have started more consistently a long time ago, but at least we’re doing them now.

Love,

Dad

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First pages

Growing up I loved the idea of a journal, a place where I could write down what was going on with me and where I was going. The kind of diary a ship captain or adventurer might have. I would buy a book and then sit down and write out what was going on, only to read it over later and come away profoundly disappointed.

This wasn’t how a journal was supposed to look. It didn’t feel the way I imagined it would. So I ripped out the page and then, maybe the next day, maybe a couple days later, I tried again. Maybe that one stuck. But the next day didn’t. Unlike a journal in a movie or a book, it didn’t have a consistency. I was one thing one day and another the next. It wasn’t a story, it wasn’t a collection of exciting (inciting?) incidents. It was just what happened to me. It was my life, I suppose, and it didn’t look right.

I have dozens of barely started notebooks in a box in the basement. The first few pages of notes from more than a hundred ideas. Some are stories, others are journal entries. I have mission statements, I have promises to myself. All of it revolving around the central idea that if I got this right, this beginning, and continued to get things right, then it (my life) would work out.

This is real definition of insanity type shit right here. Always expecting a different result.

A few months ago, I read (the audiobook version) of a book by Laurence Gonzales called Deep Survival. It’s a book about survivors, about the mental and physical commonalities that survivors of all different types of accidents share. I read the book at first out of sheer interest. I’m still tinkering away at the goblin book, and was thinking about learning more about what a person struggling to survive would act like. But the more I read, the more the book affected me. In the opening chapters I realized I would not be a good candidate for survival in a real wilderness situation. I’m a rule follower, and apparently they don’t fare too well outside of civilization. A few more chapters in I came away from the book in tears, because even though it was talking about the stages of being lost and how to get out of that state, I saw a metaphor for my own situation.

For years now I’ve been trying to get my shit together, professionally and personally. On the family front, with my wife and child, I’ve got that sewn up. I’m rock solid on the family side of things. But when it comes to my individual goals I’m in the same grey space I’ve been in for the last five years. All of this was drawn into glaring focus after a recent upset at work, but mostly it drove home that when it comes to personal accomplishments, I’m not happy and haven’t been happy for a long time and the only person who can fix that is me.

A week ago today, Ryan Davis, host and writer for the Giantbomb site died of natural causes in his sleep. He was 34 years old, a year older than I am now. I listen to the podcast every week and over the four or five years I’ve had Ryan talking in my ear for days if not weeks worth of content. I’ve come to know him and the rest of the crew through those weekly updates. They’ve made me laugh and they’ve given me a fun place to hang out on the internet. They pointed me to games that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

When I heard that Ryan had passed it hit me harder than I expected it would. We’d never met. He read one of my questions out on the podcasts once, but couldn’t find my name to put to it at the time. That was the extent of our interaction. But I’d watched him and listened to him for hours and I saw a guy that went after what he loved and in his too short time with us accomplished a lot. He was happy. Not all the time, and he worked long hours, but he seemed to be a guy who was happy doing what he was doing. For the past couple days since hearing the news I’ve been confronted with the fact that I can’t say the same thing. Not in the slightest. And if I died tomorrow there would not only be a lot left undone but unattempted.

Gonzales references something that D.H. Lawrence writes where every year we silently pass the anniversary of our future death. We don’t notice it, we can’t, but it’s there. Just a regular day every year until it’s the last. And I don’t know where that day is, but seeing a guy like Davis go so soon pushes home that there really is no time to waste. If you’re going to go, you have to go now.

I don’t know what the right steps are. I don’t know what the right words on the first page of the notebook should be. If I’m going to move in a direction, I want to know with a guarantee that it’s the right direction. But I can’t. Despite how hard-wired that desire is in me, it’s not something that’s possible.

According to Gonzales, one of the problems that most people have in a survival situation where they are lost is thinking of themselves as someone who is lost. They think about the destination, where they wish they were, and they paint their current situation in that light. What that does on a brain level is change your interpretation of the information around you to suit your desires. You want the path of least resistance to lead you home? You’ll go that way even if it’s the wrong direction. A survivor is the person that understands that they are not lost because they are where they are. They find themselves first and from there make decisions.

Whether it’s Laurence Gonzales or Andy Whitfield, the first piece of advice is this: Be Here Now.

And that’s something I haven’t done. I’ve had my mind focused on where I want to be, not where I am. I’ve pulled away from friends and family. I’ve isolated myself and tortured myself over mistakes real and imagined. I haven’t always been the most fun company and all of this has culminated in making the wrong choices based on the wrong information.

I want to make the right decisions. I want to go after what I love.

So while this might not be the perfect first page of this new virtual notebook, it’s still the first and it’s where I am now, with words of a book and the pain of losing a friend I never met rattling around my head and my heart.

Goodbye, Ryan. I’ll miss you.

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