A middle-aged man approaches an 8 year old girl. She is absorbed in her role as ringmaster of her miniature home-made carnival, he is entranced by her child-like wonder. After some platitudes and the gift of a small plastic horse the man continues on his way. So far, so sweet and innocent. When the middle-aged man reappears nearly two decades later, seemingly not a day older, his only agenda being to gouge and disembowel the girl, now in her twenties, the tone is brought firmly into confusing, disturbing territory. For she is one of his shining girls, brought mysteriously into his life by an inexplicable and malignant supernatural force, and bonded to the nine others only by the charms and keepsakes left behind purposefully at the scenes of his crimes.
If you’ve ever, for whatever reason, wondered what The Time Traveller’s Wife meets The Silence of the Lambs would be like, you’ve got your answer in The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. The story spans nearly a century, taking in significant moments in history, and, upon stumbling upon a paranormal house, brings a man with the sudden, confounding, and very much appreciated ability to time-travel, into direct contact with young women he can horrifically murder without any chance of retribution.
We learn early on that Kirby, the 8 year old ringmaster, survives the brutal assault and meet her again when she is in her mid-twenties and interning at a newspaper. Her intent is to use the resources at the paper to track down her attacker and bring him to justice, and in doing so begins to make impossible links between her case and a string of similar grizzly murders dating from the 1930s. Aiding her is the disillusioned journalist she has been assigned to, a homicide turned baseball reporter who just happened to have covered her story before becoming burnt out, who begins to see, against all his rationale, a pattern emerging that may confirm Kirby’s outlandish, yet meticulously researched claims.
The story is told predominantly from the interchanged points of view of Kirby and Harper, the sinister and cold-blooded killer, with a number of other chapters told from the rest of his victims’ perspectives. The narrative moves deftly between the years in an effective non-linear structure and the characters are well drawn and surprisingly relatable. The victims aren’t martyred by the author, which is often the case in serial-killer procedurals, their flaws and personal quirks are as laid bare as the frank, grotesque and almost clinical descriptions of Harper’s butchery. This might be explained by Beukes’ background in documentary making, typically an honest and no holds barred medium, and her additional foray into scriptwriting could account for the believable dialogue and ability to give distinct voices to the myriad of characters. Pitted with dry, dark humour, it’s no surprise to learn that comic book writing is yet another string she has added to her bow.
On the surface The Shining Girls is an innovative and interesting take on two extremely popular genres – cat and mouse murder mystery and supernatural science fiction. Yet what makes it a successful novel is its subtle and unexpected exploration of the human condition and our unanswerable big questions. At one point Harper is trying out his new found abilities where “He tests the limits. He only has to think of a time and the door will open onto it, although he can’t always tell if his thoughts are his own or if the House is deciding for him.” The idea of free will pops up again later as the uncoincidental topic of an essay Kirby reads in one of her research binges.
A great deal of deception, deliberate and serendipitous fills the pages, and conversely this confirms the various narrators as reliable. Harper learns to manipulate his way into any situation and quickly cottons on to changing gait and adding facial hair when visiting the same places years apart to avoid raising detection. One of the girls has a secret she brings to the grave with her, another is a “French” burlesque performer originally from the Bible Belt. Margot goes by an assumed name and is involved in a group in which it is imperative that no one knows too much about the next person in their line of contact. Two more have to traverse the boundaries set for them every day due to their race and sexuality – some might say they were born in the wrong era. In fact each girl is chosen randomly, each is quite literally in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An absorbing read, The Shining Girls challenges the reader in more ways than one. Its narrative is clever, its characters compelling. Kirby is an able heroine, Harper a truly monstrous villian. Most questions raised go unanswered, which only goes further to enhance the enjoyment and demands of the read, so a hokey and predictable third act slightly unravels some of the good work.
A feeling of being on the outside, other, alone in this world, is overarching and applicable to nearly all the characters, another way in which the story draws in the reader and forces an empathetic bond with the girls in particular. It’s a comforting notion that each solitary person, somewhat reveling in their isolation is not truly so alone after all. But it’s somewhat troubling then to realise that when walking in the woods or home from college, or when working overtime in a dimly lit office, sometimes, it’s better to be.