Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I like to think I’m quite creative; I’ve definitely never had any problems with a lack of imagination. But every now and then I read a book and wonder how the writer managed to come up with that idea.

ImageThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes is one of those books. It’s one of those ideas that’s brilliant in its simplicity and yet I can’t help wondering how the heck she ever thought of it.

The novel follows Harper Curtis, a drifter from depression-era Chicago. He stumbles upon a house – the House, as it later becomes – a mysterious place that’s nicer on the inside than its tumbledown exterior suggests. There’s a dead man on the floor in the hall, and upstairs there’s a room where the names of women glow, in Harper’s own handwriting, on the wall, along with sick mementoes of his crimes – a plastic pony, a contraceptive pill packet, a badge, a baseball card.

Harper is a serial killer, a nasty, heartless, unrepentant killer. Eventually we discover he killed the man on the floor – of course he did – and he strangles a blind woman to get the keys to the House in the first place. The names on the wall are the names of the Shining Girls, the women Harper kills – travelling backwards and forwards through time to stalk his prey as children, before returning to cut their lives short when they grow up. He takes mementoes from his victims and leaves them with others. The whole thing has a bleak inevitability about it – the women can’t escape their gruesome fate.

Then after meeting her as a child, he travels to 1989 and attacks Kirby Mazrachi. But Kirby doesn’t die like she should. Forced to live with her violent attack, she can’t move on until she finds out more about the man who tried to murder her. And what she discovers is impossible – murders connected across the decades, with often anachronistic objects left with the victims; Kirby’s plastic pony, given to her in the 70s, wasn’t made until 1982. The baseball card left with another victim features a player who was unknown when the murder took place.

Time travel makes my head hurt – that whole ‘you can’t go back and kill Hitler’ thing? It’s all so tricky. Some of this novel seemed so cyclical that I couldn’t always keep track of the time travelling. Harper puts the House key in his coat and gives it to the blind woman, whose coat – with the key in the pocket – he’d already stolen. Still with me? But actually – in a similar way to the brilliant Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – I found if you just went with it, and stopped trying to make it all work then it all worked. If that makes any sense at all.

Anyway, the long and short of it is, I loved The Shining Girls. It’s atmospheric, creepy, heartbreaking and original. I’ve not read any of Lauren Beukes’s other novels, but I will certainly look them out now. 

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