The Shining Girls by South African author Lauren Beukes revolves around Harper Curtis, a drifter in Chicago’s Hooverville in 1931. Harper is on the run after killing a man when he finds the key to The House. He discovers that the house allows him to step into other times and in the bedroom upstairs there are names written on the wall; names of girls that he stalks through time, his shining girls.
In 1989 one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and with the help of Dan Velasquez, a burned-out homicide reported who had covered her case, starts to investigate a number of brutal murders scattered through the decades, convinced that they are somehow connected to the attempt on her life.
I don’t usually read thrillers but quite enjoyed this one. It was a tough read, though.
To start with, it’s written in the present tense. That’s not a dealbreaker for me as it is for some readers, and I’ve even experimented with it in the Song Title Challenges, but I can’t recall ever having read a novel written in the present tense and it took a bit of getting used to. When I did get used to it I actually found it quite effective in making the events of the story more immediate and making me feel almost as if I’m in the story myself.
It was also a bit confusing as the timeline is all over the place. Harper and Kirby are the main POV characters, but Dan and most of Harper’s victims also get their own chapters and the chapters don’t seem to follow any chronological order. This confused me so much that when NaNoWriMo started I put the hundred pages I’d already read aside completely and re-started the book from page one when I picked it up again. The second time I remembered to check the date at the top of each chapter and it was easier to keep track of the plot. Even then I was tempted to make my own murder wall like Beukes used when she planned the novel.
Once I got past those two hurdles The Shining Girls became a gripping read. Kirby is one of the strongest female characters I’ve read, refusing to be a victim and not giving a damn about what others think as she tries to track down her killer. Dan is a good counter-balance. Cynical and world-weary he cannot help but be drawn into Kirby’s obsession as he slowly falls for her. We don’t get to know much about Harper, except that he’s a sociopath driven to kill by the house itself, it seems.
Two things that might put some readers off is that the book contains a lot of swearing and Beukes is very graphic in her descriptions of violent scenes. However, both these aspects fit both the genre and the subject matter of the novel and had Beukes dialled it down on either aspect it would have seriously detracted from the novel as a whole.
Lastly I can’t review this novel without specifically looking at its one fantastical aspect – time travel. This is a risky topic even for experienced Science Fiction authors, but I think Beukes handled this wonderfully. She manages to avoid the typical paradoxes caused by messing with time and while many questions are left unanswered regarding how it works, I never found myself questioning the premise that it works.
If you enjoy thrillers, especially ones with a paranormal or fantastical aspect to them, then The Shining Girls is for you. And I’m not just saying it because the author is a fellow South African 😉