It is July 17, 1974, and a strange man approaches a child playing alone in a yard. It is classic in its unsettledness; we all know this story, so we instinctively hold our breaths. Strangers and children. Predators and prey. The axioms slowly rise in our minds, like a flush over a face. The stranger is Harper Curtis, with jeans, a gimpy foot, and an austere countenance. The child is Kirby Mazrachi, with brown eyes, frizzy hair, and a bee buzzing under a cup. She’s trapped it; there is a subtle omen here. This is a first meeting, and yet it is not. Harper Curtis tells Kirby, “That’s great. Really great. Here we go. Round and round, like your Ferris wheel. I’ll see you when you’re all grown up. Look out for me, okay, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.” and he departs. He leaves behind a token, a prize, that he is both receiving and giving up. This is a beginning with a hole in it, and a reader is left wondering when they’ll get the key.
It is a strong first chapter, a good opening; Lauren Beukes sets the ball on the tee perfectly. But writing about time travel proves to be a tricky thing. For loops in time really always boil down to one ideology: determinism. This is the beast we are led to think we are fighting against. Will Harper and Kirby get swept by the current? Or will they somehow break the cycle, and get swallowed into a quantum jumble?
The unfortunate reality about Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is that this battle never really occurs. Instead, the thriller novel is gobbled into a long sluice of fatalistic linear storytelling of women getting murdered over and over again, and our heroine, Kirby, muddling around in the background performing the blasé actions of the ‘catch-a-killer’ game while simultaneously not getting anywhere. To put frankly, The Shining Girls is a draining experience.
“Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.
There are names scrawled beside them. Jinsuk. Zora. Willy. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Strange names of women he doesn’t know.
Except that the names are written in Harper’s own handwriting.
It’s enough. The realization. Like a door opening up inside. The fever peaks and something howls through him, full of contempt and wrath and fire. He sees the faces of the shining girls and knows how they must die. The screaming inside his head: Kill her. Stop her. […]
Harper takes away his hands and forces himself to open his eyes. He hauls himself to his feet, using the bedpost for balance, and hobbles over to the wall where the objects pulse and flicker, as if in anticipation. He lets them guide him, reaching out his hand. There is one that seems sharper somehow. It nags at him, the way an erection does, with incontrovertible purpose. He has to find it. And the girl who comes with it.”Lauren Beukes, From The Shining Girls
Right out of the gate something must be stated about The Shining Girls: Lauren Beukes is an incredible writer. Her ability to paint tone and depth into a scene is truly impressive; her prose is osmosed with the mood of her subject so finely that it feels seamless. Without question, Beukes is a great penner of words, and I fully appreciated her analogous and metaphorical choices and what I will call the lexis of her work.
But much halts there. A time-traveling serial killer is an intriguing premise for a thriller, one that feels open to imaginative pathways otherwise exempt from most crime-rooted tales. The expectation of more horror, more mystery, more magical realism, more breadth, is high. Yet, perhaps it was too high for Beukes, as she just couldn’t seem to reach those upper levels. We are left with a shallow, dull slog of murder after murder, useless detective scene after useless detective scene, and a weird unrequited love story that feels vapid in its unidirectionalness. It hurts to say that despite Beukes’ attempt to make The Shining Girls “a book that is as much about the victims’ stories as the killer’s,” the most interesting character is undoubtedly Harper, and the book features his thoughts, his activities, and his triumphs and tragedies most prominently, deranged murderous antagonist overtaking spunky jaded protagonist easily. For a book that implies a 5th dimension, it’s irksomely flat.
The book takes the reader through several decades, bouncing along the chill 90s to the Great Depression and back again. Here Lauren Beukes is actually at her best, describing the mood and atmosphere of each cultural time period in wonderfully researched detail (which actually leaves the question of whether Beukes is simply in the wrong genre and that perhaps her skills would better be utilized in non-fiction, historical enterprises). This time hopping should be an experience that feels like a koan, the solution resisting us as the solving goes on. But it somehow doesn’t. Instead, the fatalism of it all rather blunts the thrill and mystery. Should we be biting our nails as Harper encroaches upon yet another bright victim? When in fact, we already know she is dead, or will be, and that all these events are just part of a daisy chain that feels more repetitious than anything. And what of Kirby, our sole survivor? Beukes just shoves her in, and throughout the work she doesn’t seem to have much agency, and in fact at the end (a light spoiler ahead) seems to be the perpetrator of her own demise.
So, is Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls simply a veiled fatalistic tragedy? The paradox is the story, right? Weirdly, it doesn’t feel like this either. Weirder still, I’m not sure Beukes even noticed her own contradiction. (Though I’m sure by now, some people have pointed it out to her.) The finale feels like a larger story Beukes couldn’t quite figure out and lopped off, almost as if Beukes reached the end of her own intellect and could go no further. Now, is it possible that Beukes in fact did fully understand the contradiction and simply failed in her relaying of it to her audience? Yes; however, this ends up not changing the glaring grimy smudge of this supposed reflective gotcha loop—Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls is boring, and the lot of what happens in the book has no bearing at all to the final problem. Beukes seems to forget that the infamous Möbius strip has only one side, and makes little use of any imagination and daring she might have to add any profundity to the mathematical simplicity of her deterministic model. In the end, Harper gets everything he wants because of Kirby, and Kirby gets everything she doesn’t want because of herself. One is left wondering, How does this play out in the self-agency of our dead girls? Beukes becomes the thing she hates: a writer of “All The Pretty Corpses,” a genre trope she actively rejects and attempts to remedy in her short essay by the same name at the end of the book’s reading guide. The irony is so strong it almost leaves a taste of pity in the mouth.
It’s two stars for Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. But I will leave with this: if Lauren Beukes ever decides to leave behind the world of fiction and instead picks up non-fiction, I might very much swipe that off the shelf.
Two stars for The Shining Girls.
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